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Turkey: Worries Grow Over Possible U.S. Strikes Against Iraq

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Reports that the U.S. may eventually turn its antiterror military campaign on Iraq is unnerving some in Turkey. The U.S. has not announced any plans to extend the military campaign to Iraq, but many in Turkey are convinced such a move is only a matter of time. Ankara says it is opposed to any renewed large-scale military operations against Baghdad, warning they could destabilize the region.

Prague, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. columnist William Safire earlier this month made news by publishing a fake interview with the late U.S. President Richard Nixon on the military campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.

In the column, Safire has Nixon suggest that Turkey help the U.S. topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by moving its troops across its southern border in return for a large chunk of territory in Iraq's oil-rich and mainly Kurdish northern provinces.

For readers inside the U.S., the column was probably received in the spirit it was intended: a stylistic exercise meant mostly to provoke and entertain.

But in Turkey, where politicians remain anxious over the military action in Afghanistan, the column was not well-received.

Yuksel Soylemez, the co-chairman of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, a think-tank affiliated with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, says Safire's article was met unfavorably by Turkey's decision-makers.

Soylemez tells RFE/RL the fact that Safire's column appeared at this point in time may not be coincidental. He says Safire's idea resembles a suggestion made in 1990-1991 to Turkish President Turgut Ozal by then-U.S. President George Bush. At the time, Bush convinced Ozal to take part in the anti-Saddam coalition in return for promises to close his eyes to Ankara's moves in northern Iraq.

"Ozal is no longer in the picture, but the idea is revived again by Safire. We all know that Safire is very close to the White House. Of course, he put [this idea] in an imaginary interview, which is not really imaginary. It may [well] be the thinking in the White House."

Echoing Soylemez's concerns, the editor-in-chief of the Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News," Ilnur Cevik, noted on 14 November that the fake interview prompted speculation that Washington may be preparing to move against Iraq.

The United States considers Iraq, which remains shackled by an 11-year-old economic embargo, a state that sponsors terrorism.

No proof has emerged -- at least publicly -- that Baghdad had anything to do with the September suicide plane crashes in New York and Washington.

Yet some in the Pentagon favor broadening the response to the attacks to include Iraq and possibly other states that the U.S. believes have trained or harbored terrorists in Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, the main suspect behind the 11 September bombings.

The U.S. has officially denied it has any immediate plans to attack Iraq. But Secretary of State Colin Powell has warned Baghdad that Washington will turn its attention to Iraq's weapons programs once it has dealt with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

In an interview with America's CBS television network on 7 November, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reiterated that Turkey -- NATO's only Muslim member and Washington's main ally in southeastern Europe -- firmly backs the ongoing U.S.-led campaign. But he said Ankara would not welcome expanding the military operations to other states such as Iraq or Iran, lest such a move destabilize the region.

Besides offering its backing to the U.S.-led anti-Taliban campaign, Turkey has opened its southeastern Incirlik air base to cargo planes taking part in military operations in Afghanistan.

Defying domestic public opinion, Ecevit's coalition government has also offered to contribute a 90-strong special forces unit to buttress international efforts to bring down the Taliban.

But for Turkish leaders, any large-scale allied military operations against Iraq would be too great a risk. Officially, at least.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Turkey has moved steadily toward rebuilding ties with Iraq.

Turkey was Baghdad's largest trading partner before the war. During the 1980s, Ankara gained millions of dollars in revenue from Iraqi crude oil pumped to its Mediterranean terminals.

The Turkish government claims that international sanctions against Iraq have cost Ankara between $40 billion and $45 billion in lost revenue.

Turkish experts say the country's ongoing economic crisis would prevent Ankara from joining a new anti-Saddam coalition.

The value of Turkey's currency has fallen by more than half with respect to the U.S. dollar during the past nine months. Inflation is expected to reach 80 percent this year, and hundreds of thousands of workers have been made redundant by the economic recession.

Already opposed to the dispatching of troops in Afghanistan, most Turks fears a war against Iraq would drag the country deeper into economic hardship.

Dogan Ozguden is the editor-in-chief of the Brussels-based "Info-Turk" independent electronic newspaper. He told our correspondent that, given Turkey's present woes, any new tremors could be fatal to Evecit's already unpopular cabinet.

"There has already been a military operation [against Iraq] that cost Turkey huge economic and financial losses. Therefore, a new military operation while there is a crisis going on -- this time due to domestic factors -- could, of course, aggravate the economic situation and, consequently, the social and political climate in Turkey."

Public opinion surveys suggest that, should legislative elections take place now, Ecevit's Democratic Left Party would not get the 10 percent of votes necessary to be represented in parliament. The crisis has prompted a wave of individual and collective protests, with crowds of angry demonstrators taking to the streets of Turkey's major cities to demand that Ecevit and his cabinet step down.

But, paradoxically, some say that economic hardship could have the reverse effect, prompting Turkey to join a new U.S.-led war on Saddam's regime.

In dire need for money to reinvigorate its financial and industrial sectors, Ankara has already secured $19 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But prospects for recovery still look dim, and Ankara is asking for new loans to sustain its economic program next year.

Ozguden believes the government does not have much room to maneuver and that it could eventually overcome its reluctance to agree to a U.S.-led military campaign in return for much-needed financial help.

"Whichever level you look at -- economic, political, and military -- Turkey depends on the United States. Turkey's leaders are looking for possible sources of financing, mainly from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. Given this context, they could agree to any demand formulated by the U.S. in return for financial support. This is reality."

Fear of political chaos along its southern border is another reason put forward by Turkey to justify its opposition to any military operation against Baghdad.

Ankara has opposed an armed Kurdish rebellion in its southeast for the past 20 years and fears unrest in northern Iraq's Kurdish provinces.

Ankara notably fears that granting any kind of territorial autonomy to Iraqi Kurds might profit the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), the only legal pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, or reignite full-scale war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Turkish troops have made several armed incursions into northern Iraq to pursue PKK guerillas, with tacit U.S. consent. In an attempt to neutralize the PKK, Ankara has sided with two Iraq-based Kurdish opposition movements, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Masood Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Although Ankara does not officially support the Iraqi regime, it appears content with the present situation. Therefore, it would not necessarily welcome an abrupt change of leadership in Baghdad.

Turkish foreign policy analyst Soylemez says, "You don't know who is going to replace Saddam. This we keep saying to the Americans. There is a difference in the views of the Turkish government and those of the U.S. administration [on this issue]. You remove Saddam, but then what is the alternative? There is no clear understanding on who's going to replace him because there is no visible opposition in Iraq. There is no chance for an opposition at the moment. So who's going to replace [Saddam]? Who's going to be next? Will that not bring more chaos in Iraq?"

Should the White House decide on military action, it would certainly require Turkey's Incirlik air base. Should that happen, journalist Ozguden says, Turkey would try to get the highest possible return.

"As far as I know, it has always been in the Turkish leadership's ambition to control oil fields in Kirkuk and Mosul [in northern Iraq]. True, this is not the official line. But still, far-right politicians and some people in the military leadership have been dreaming about that for decades."

Meanwhile, experts say wariness and concern are the predominant feelings among Turkish leaders. Asked what Ankara's attitude would be in case of U.S. attacks on Iraq, Soylemez answered, "We'll cross the bridge when we come to it."