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Turkey: Regional Conference Spurs Hopes Of Preserving Peace In Iraq

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey tomorrow welcomes foreign ministers from Iran and four Arab countries in a bid to avert a new conflict in Iraq, 12 years after the Gulf War. Turkey's new leadership is giving the conference a lot of attention. Yet there are few indications of what concrete initiatives, if any, will be discussed in Istanbul.

Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey will host a Middle East regional conference tomorrow that is officially aimed at examining ways to avert war in neighboring Iraq. Foreign ministers from Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are expected to meet in Istanbul in a last-ditch effort to find a peaceful outcome to the U.S.-Iraq standoff, even as Washington continues to send troops to the region.

Media reports say participants will present a joint declaration urging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to provide additional evidence that his regime is complying with United Nations disarmament resolutions and to increase its cooperation with UN arms inspectors.

NATO member Turkey originally wanted to host the leaders of all five countries that Prime Minister Abdullah Gul visited earlier this month. But the summit was scaled down to the level of foreign ministers at the suggestion of some participants.

Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis yesterday said a high-level meeting could be organized shortly after the Istanbul conference at a place that remains to be determined.

In an interview published in today's edition of the English-language "Turkish Daily News," Yakis said the lists of equipment Iraq has so far produced have failed to convince the international community that it is not hiding weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, Yakis said, Hussein must find other ways to assure the world that his regime does not represent a threat.

The Turkish foreign minister also dismissed reports that Ankara is working with some Arab countries on a plan to persuade the Iraqi leader to go into exile to avert a U.S. attack.

Turkey fears war could shake its fragile economy, which has already been hit by a serious recession, and stir troubles in its mainly Kurdish southeastern provinces. In addition, as Yakis told the "Turkish Daily News," Ankara does not see war in Iraq as a priority and would rather focus on its membership bid for the European Union and on peace negotiations over the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Addressing fellow party members yesterday in the Turkish parliament, the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, cautioned against the risks posed by a new regional conflict 12 years after the Gulf War.

Urging the international community not to let the fight against terrorism "blow out of proportion," AKP Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan called upon U.S. and British leaders to heed antiwar protests that recently took place in Western capitals. "We believe that, for the sake of humanity and civilization, decision makers must hear those demands for peace that are rising from all around the world. It will be possible to achieve this, first and foremost, if our ally the United States attempts to peacefully solve [the Iraq crisis] and also if all other countries wish to contribute to peace. As a country that occupies a central position in the region, Turkey will continue doing its utmost [to prevent a possible war]," Erdogan said.

Yet, while stating that it remains committed to finding a peaceful outcome to the Iraq crisis, Ankara has nevertheless left the door ajar to military cooperation with Washington, should the U.S. administration decide to take action against Hussein's regime.

Last week, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said through his spokesman that Turkey would make only a limited contribution to any possible U.S. war effort. He also reiterated that, in any case, Ankara would not make any decision until the UN Security Council approves military action against Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. military inspectors have been examining a number of Turkish airports, airfields, and seaports over the past few days.

Although it is unclear whether the Pentagon would launch any attack against Iraq from the north, military analysts believe the deployment of U.S. troops would play a key role in any war scenario.

U.S. Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Ankara on 20 January for talks with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul and military officials. Myers also visited the southern Incirlik military air base, which has been used for more than a decade by U.S. and British warplanes to patrol one of the two "no-fly" zones imposed on Baghdad after the Gulf War.

Speaking to reporters before leaving Ankara, Myers denied that the United States is frustrated by Turkey's reluctance to commit its territory to a possible war. "I am leaving here with a sense that Turkey will continue to be a very important strategic partner for the United States, and any idea that I am impatient or that we have made demands here is absolutely not the case," Myers said.

The United States was originally believed to be considering sending up to 80,000 soldiers to Turkey, but reports say it could downsize its military presence to 15,000 troops to appease Turkish concerns.

Opinion polls show that up to 80 percent of Turks are against a war, mainly for economic reasons.

Yakis yesterday denied a report in "The New York Times" that quoted him as saying Ankara had already given its approval to the deployment of U.S. troops. Talking to reporters in Ankara, he said both sides had only agreed to continue discussing the practical aspects of possible cooperation.

In comments made to Turkey's "Cumhuriyet" daily, Yakis's predecessor, Sukru Sina Gurel, today urged the country's new leadership to firmly reject any U.S. military deployment on Turkish soil. Otherwise, he warned, tomorrow's Istanbul conference might be just a "diplomatic show."