Prague, 16 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has arrived in NATO ally Turkey to brief government and military officials on Washington's intentions regarding Iraq.
Wolfowitz arrived last night from Afghanistan, accompanied by General Joseph Ralston, the commander of the U.S. European Command. Another high-ranking U.S. official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, arrived separately in Ankara yesterday.
The Associated Press reports that Grossman, the No. 3 official in the U.S. State Department, recently met with Iraqi opposition leaders. The agency gave no further details.
Turkey's Anadolu news agency says that Grossman and Ralston have their own agendas but will attend some of the meetings Wolfowitz will hold with Turkish officials.
Wolfowitz was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, and army chief of staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu.
Wolfowitz's visit comes in the midst of political uncertainty surrounding Ecevit's coalition cabinet.
A total of 59 deputies, including seven cabinet members, have resigned from Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP) over the past week, depriving the coalition government from its absolute majority in parliament. All seven ministers, including Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, a strong supporter of Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, have also relinquished their government portfolios.
The present turmoil, sparked by concerns over Ecevit's health, is likely to prompt early legislative polls and could also threaten the survival of the ruling coalition. The mandate of the legislature is scheduled to expire in April 2004, but the vast majority of political parties now favor early polls in the fall.
There is widespread concern in Ankara that political uncertainty could derail a $16 billion recovery program backed by the International Monetary Fund to help Turkey end its worst economic crisis since World War II.
Concerns over the country's fragile economy, which shrank by more than 9 percent last year, are also put forward by Turkish authorities to justify their opposition to renewed military operations on neighboring Iraq.
Washington's official policy advocates a regime change in Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush accuses Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of hoarding weapons of mass destruction and working to produce nuclear bombs.
Washington and its allies insist that Saddam must allow weapons inspectors from the United Nations back into Iraq, or face possible retaliation. UN inspectors were kicked out of the country more than three years ago.
Addressing university students in the Chinese capital, Beijing, today, visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reiterated that any conciliatory move on the part of Baghdad would help defuse tension. "What we want to see is the readmission of the weapons inspectors and a facility for them to do their job without conditions. And if it were to happen, then I think that conversations about military action would be much reduced. But, as we say, the ball is in Iraq's court," Straw said.
Britain and the United States are enforcing a no-fly-zone regime imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect ethnic and religious minorities living in the country's northern and southern provinces.
On 18 June, the Turkish parliament voted to extend the mandate of the so-called Northern Watch operation until the end of this year. Under the agreement, U.S. and British warplanes will continue to use Turkey's southern Incirlik air base to enforce the northern exclusion zone, above the 36th parallel.
The mandate of Northern Watch is extended every six months by the Turkish parliament amid protests from Baghdad, which considers the allied air patrols to be a violation of its sovereignty.
The idea of possible U.S. military action against Turkeys' southern Arab neighbor has raised concerns among Ankara's secular and military circles alike. Turkey fears that any large-scale operation against Iraq may jeopardize its recent efforts to rebuild economic ties with Saddam's regime and cost its already ailing economy dearly.
The Turkish government, which says that international sanctions against Iraq have cost the country up to $45 billion in lost revenue, also claims that political chaos in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq could reignite separatist turmoil in its own southeastern Kurdish provinces.
Guerrilla warfare against the now defunct Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has caused an estimated 35,000 deaths since 1984, but violence in the area has largely subsided following the 1999 arrest and subsequent trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Yet, political analysts argue that whatever arguments Turkey may use to prove its case against a U.S.-led war on Baghdad, it has little leverage to influence Washington's decision, if only because of its dependence on IMF loans.
The Ankara-based NTV private television channel yesterday reported that, although Turkey might consider opening its air bases and airspace to U.S. warplanes, it would resolutely oppose any plans to use its territory in a possible land operation against Iraq.
"The New York Times" earlier this month reported that Washington is considering a massive attack on Iraq by land, sea, and air. The plan, which U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today described as "low-level," reportedly envisages simultaneous land invasion from Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf region.
Turkey may also try to negotiate its endorsement of a U.S. action against Iraq in return for Washington's promise to help lift Greece's restrictions to a defense agreement that would give Ankara a say in operations carried out by a planned European rapid-reaction force.
Finally, Ankara might press Washington to allocate the $228 million, including $200 million in economic aid, visiting U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney promised on 19 March to help Turkey run the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or ISAF.
Turkey took over command of the 5,300-strong international force from Britain on 20 June for at least six months. Ankara claims the U.S. Congress has still not approved the financial package promised by the Bush administration.