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Turkey: Parliamentary 'No' Vote On U.S. Troops Puts Government, Ruling Party In Straits

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Weeks of arduous negotiations between Washington and Ankara for the use of Turkey as a launching pad for U.S. troops in the event of war on Iraq came to nothing on 1 March when Turkish lawmakers failed to endorse a motion authorizing the creation of U.S. bases on national territory. The vote may have serious consequences not only for any possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, but for Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party as well.

Prague, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. plans to use NATO-member Turkey as a springboard in a possible war on neighboring Iraq suffered a major setback when Turkish lawmakers on 1 March failed to endorse a government motion authorizing the deployment of up to 62,000 U.S. soldiers on national territory.

The decision was made public at the conclusion of a nearly four-hour, closed session of parliament.

There was a moment of great confusion when deputies coming out of the assembly hall told reporters the motion had been adopted by a narrow margin. Yet 40 minutes later, parliament speaker Bulent Arinc nullified the vote, saying the government proposal had not mustered sufficient support among the 533 deputies in attendance.

Arinc said 264 deputies had approved the deployment of U.S. troops, while 250 had voted against the motion. Another 19 legislators abstained, and 17 did not attend the hearings.

The resolution did not pass because the total number of "no" votes and abstentions was greater than the number of favorable votes. According to the Turkish Constitution, a resolution can become law only if it is supported by a majority of the lawmakers present.

The outcome of the vote is also a serious blow for the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Both Gul and Erdogan had supported the motion, but dozens of AKP lawmakers rejected it, challenging Turkey's hallmark party discipline.

Like the vast majority of their constituencies, many Turkish politicians oppose Ankara's participation in a U.S.-led war on Iraq for fear of its possible economic and political consequences.

Washington's pledges to earmark up to $30 billion in aid to compensate for the financial impact of a war on Turkey's fragile economy apparently failed to allay parliamentarians' fears. So did Erdogan's insistent plea that Ankara must offer logistical support to the U.S. if it wants to have a say in the future of Iraq. Many in Turkey fear that possible troubles in northern Iraq's Kurdish-held areas may reignite Kurdish separatism in southeastern Anatolia.

Addressing reporters late on 1 March, Gul acknowledged that the vote had put Turkey and his AKP-controlled cabinet in straits. But he cautioned against the temptation to exploit the wind of revolt that had blown earlier that day in parliament for political purposes. "We are faced with a serious and important issue. What is being discussed is Turkey's security and future. This is not a domestic problem. I am convinced it would be improper and not beneficial to Turkey to turn this kind of issue into a domestic one," Gul said.

The U.S. has not yet reacted to the Turkish parliament's decision. Agence France Presse reported on 1 March that the U.S. State Department had already prepared a statement of gratitude in anticipation of a positive vote.

The U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Robert Pearson, rushed to the Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately after the results of the vote were made public. Addressing reporters after talks with Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyal, Pearson said Washington "had hoped for a favorable decision" but stressed that bilateral relations would not be affected by the decision.

Gul today gave a similar assessment, saying he is convinced friendly Turkish-U.S. ties will not be damaged. "Turkish-American relations are without doubt of a strategic nature. Our friendly relationship with the U.S., which is based on mutual understanding, will go on. One should not reduce [this relationship] to a single motion," he said.

For the past three weeks, U.S. military engineers have been upgrading half-a-dozen Turkish seaports and air bases for use in a possible war on Iraq. A number of U.S. ships carrying heavy equipment are still waiting off the Turkish Mediterranean port of Iskenderun, pending authorization to unload their cargo.

"The New York Times" on 1 March quoted officials at the U.S. Defense Department as saying they are still determined to open a northern front in any war against Iraq, even without Turkey's help. They say such an operation could entail airlifting troops and tanks from bases elsewhere in the region.

Washington and Ankara spent weeks in arduous negotiations to draft a memorandum of understanding that would have provided a technical framework for the deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish soil and for future cooperation in northern Iraq. The cabinet motion also envisaged the deploying of Turkish troops to Iraq's Kurdish-held areas, ostensibly to prevent an influx of refugees into Turkey.

Both Gul and Erdogan said on 1 March the decision by the legislators should be respected, describing it as a "fully democratic vote."

Most of Turkey's mainstream newspapers on 2 March noted that, only four months after reaching power, the AKP leadership is unable to control its representatives in the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

AKP "aged four years in four months," wrote columnist Oktay Eksi in the center-right "Hurriyet" daily, while Ismet Berkan argued in the center-left "Radikal" that another failed attempt to have the motion approved by parliament "would wipe out both the economy and the government." Also worth noting is the reaction of the "Yeni Safak" moderate Islamic daily -- a traditional AKP supporter -- which hailed parliament's decision as a "victory of peace and democracy."

Gul has canceled a visit scheduled for today to the southeastern Siirt Province, where Erdogan is expected to run in a by-election next week (9 March).

Yesterday, the prime minister conferred with other top AKP leaders on whether the government motion should be sent again to lawmakers. Talking to reporters after the meeting, Erdogan said a new motion could be submitted to parliament "if deemed necessary." He gave no other details.

Turkey's Anadolu news agency today quotes the chairman of AKP's parliamentary group, Eyup Fatsa, as saying the motion had been postponed "indefinitely" and that no decision should be expected in the immediate future. Parliament reconvenes tomorrow.

Iraq yesterday welcomed the Turkish parliament's decision and expressed hope that legislators will maintain their positions. But Gul cautioned Baghdad against reading the decision as an encouragement for Iraq to delay cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. "The Iraqi leadership should not exploit the decision made yesterday by the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Should they misunderstand this decision, try to take advantage of it and delay cooperation with the UN, it would only make it more difficult to secure peace. This is why no one should misinterpret the parliament's decision," Gul said.

While deputies were debating the government motion on 1 March, an estimated 50,000 antiwar activists were staging a demonstration on a nearby square in Ankara. Later that day, a few hundred protestors took to the capital's streets to celebrate the vote, accusing the AKP's top leadership of "collaborating" with Washington.