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Turkey: U.S. Plan To Oust Saddam Leaves Ankara Between Iraq And A Hard Place

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey, which borders Iraq to the north, has long expressed its concern that a resumption of large-scale military operations in the region might harm its national interests. But as the United States appears more and more determined to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force, Ankara is gradually softening its stance and suggesting it may give its conditional support to Washington's military plans.

Prague, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officially, Turkey remains opposed to any strike on Baghdad. There are, however, indications that Ankara may eventually agree to a military operation against its southern neighbor should Washington decide to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force.

Addressing reporters in Jordan's capital Amman on 6 August, visiting Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel said Ankara will not participate in an attack against Iraq and urged Washington and Baghdad to solve their dispute "through peaceful means."

Yet, when asked what his country's attitude would be should the U.S. opt for a military solution, Gurel said, "Turkey will not support any action against Iraq unless there is an international consensus [on that issue]."

It was the second time in recent weeks that a government official has hinted that Turkey might lend support, albeit conditionally, to an American military operation against Baghdad.

In comments broadcast on Turkish television shortly after U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited Ankara on 15-17 July, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said his government's main concern was to avoid any surprise moves by Washington. "We told [the Americans] that should they decide to launch an operation in one form or another, we expect them to engage in a very close dialogue with us. Iraq is our neighbor. Our relations are very good. We told [the Americans] that we expect them to show the necessary caution so that we do not suffer," Ecevit said.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who accuses Baghdad of hoarding weapons of mass destruction and supporting international terrorism, has raised the threat of military strikes to achieve his goal, unless Saddam agrees to the return of United Nations weapons inspectors, who have been barred from his country since December 1998.

Despite mounting concerns among U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, it is commonly believed that preparations for war are already under way and that an attack on Iraq could begin as soon as early next year.

In comments made to Turkey's NTV private television channel, Iraqi Kurd leader Jalal Talabani yesterday denied Kurdish press reports that Turkish and U.S. troops have already started setting up bases in northern Iraq in anticipation of an offensive. However, Talabani, who was on his way to the U.S. to participate in a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders, said he expected Washington to launch an attack this winter.

On 6 August, "The Wall Street Journal" daily reported that U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, had the day before briefed the White House on an invasion plan involving up to 80,000 troops backed by heavy air support.

Another leading U.S. newspaper, "The New York Times," reported last month that the Pentagon, which already has 50,000 troops in the region, was considering a land invasion from Turkey, Jordan, and unspecified Arab Gulf countries.

Neither report could be independently confirmed.

Military experts and regional analysts believe that whatever option U.S. planners choose, an attack on Iraq would almost certainly require American forces to use the Incirlik air base near Turkey's southern city of Adana, as well as other Turkish military facilities.

On 31 July, the Turkish "Milliyet" daily said Washington had asked Turkey for permission to use some of its air bases in case of an attack against Iraq. This report, as well as others, claiming that the recent visit of a U.S. military delegation to discuss the possible deployment on Turkish soil of a new air-defense system foreshadowed war, was denied by the Turkish government.

U.S. and British military aircraft have been using Incirlik for more than a decade to enforce the no-fly-zone regime imposed on northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect the estimated 3.5 million Kurds living in the region. On 18 June, Turkey's parliament voted to extend the mandate of the so-called Northern Watch operation until the end of this year.

In a bid to garner the support of Turkey, which has NATO's second-largest army, Washington is trying to convince its leaders that they would benefit from the Iraqi leader's removal.

Speaking to reporters on 5 August, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said the Iraqi regime represented a threat to the entire region, including Turkey. "We have regular talks with Turkey. Our NATO ally, our good friend, obviously has an interest in Iraq because Iraq is a neighbor of Turkey's. As we have said many times, our concerns are about Saddam Hussein's regime and the threats it poses not only to the people of Iraq, but to the people of the region, [Iraq's] neighbors in particular. We've seen throughout history -- not that long ago, relatively speaking -- what he can do to [Iraq's] neighbors, and so Turkey has an interest in Saddam Hussein," Reeker said.

Ankara, however, believes it has more to fear from a large-scale military operation against Iraq than from Saddam himself.

In the early 1990s, Turkey was the first regional country to join the U.S.-led Desert Storm operation to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Although Turkey's powerful military turned down then-President Turgut Ozal's request to send troops to Iraq, they reluctantly allowed U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik and other air bases.

Turkish leaders argue that the Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Baghdad have cost Ankara up to $45 billion in lost revenue. They also say renewed tension in the region might jeopardize recent efforts to rebuild economic ties with Iraq while Turkey is facing a major economic recession. Bilateral trade volume between Iraq and Turkey currently stands at an official $1 billion a year, down from a pre-Gulf War level of $2.5 billion. Despite Iraq's claims that Turkey is trying to monopolize the region's water resources by building dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, relations between the two neighbors have been slowly, but significantly, improving.

On 6 August, Turkish envoy Gurel discussed the regional situation in Amman with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, also on a visit to the Jordanian capital.

In comments made to NTV yesterday, Gurel said he told Sabri that in order to avert a military strike, Iraq should allow UN inspectors back in "without any preconditions."

Last week, Sabri sent a letter inviting UN chief arms inspector Hans Blix to Baghdad for technical talks on the possible resumption of the weapons-inspection program. But the UN, before accepting the invitation, wants Iraq to show a willingness to let arms inspectors return unconditionally, in compliance with Security Council guidelines.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Yusuf Buluc made it clear that Gurel's diplomatic mission has provided no substantial result. "Our impression from the meeting is that the Iraqi leaders have some hesitations [regarding cooperation with the UN] that they have not yet overcome. We reiterated our wish that we would like to see them reconsider their position as soon as possible," Buluc said.

Buluc also cut short speculations that Iraq might have asked Turkey to intercede on its behalf with the UN or the U.S. administration. "The Iraqi side has not made a single concrete demand on any issue to Turkey [or] to our foreign minister," Buluc said.

Another major concern for Turkey is the prospect of an independent Kurdish state arising from the rubble of Saddam's regime.

Ankara's 1984-1999 guerrilla war against armed militants of the now-defunct Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, claimed some 35,000 lives, mostly civilian. Although violence largely subsided after the capture and trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan three years ago, Ankara fears any trouble along its borders might reignite armed separatism in its predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Controlled by Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, northern Iraq is enjoying de facto autonomy, slowly recovering from decades of internal fighting and war against Iraqi troops. Both the PUK and the KDP condone forays conducted regularly into their respective areas by Turkish troops in pursuit of PKK militants.

Talabani yesterday told NTV that he had come to Ankara to assure the Turkish government and military that the PUK does not want an independent Kurdistan and that Iraqi Kurds wish to be citizens of a "democratic and united Iraq."

Talabani's remarks echoed comments made by Wolfowitz who said in Ankara last month that the creation of an independent Kurdistan was not on Washington's agenda. "We would like to see an Iraq that is democratic, an Iraq that maintains the territorial integrity of the country. [We would like] to see an Iraq that does not lead to the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. We want to see an Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors and an Iraq that treats its minorities fairly, including the [Turkic-speaking] Turkomans," Wolfowitz said.

Concern over the fate of Iraq's 1 million Turkomans -- for whom some officials in Ankara advocate autonomy -- is another argument cited to justify Turkey's claim that it should be consulted on the fate of its southern neighbor.

But as columnist Sedat Ergin noted on 18 July in Turkey's conservative "Hurriyet" daily, if Ankara wants to have a say on the Iraqi issue, it cannot afford not to cooperate with its American ally.

To believe Turkish officials who met with Wolfowitz last month, this point of view was made all the more clear when the U.S. envoy indicated his country would move against Iraq "with or without Ankara."