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Turkey: Government Under Fire Over U.S. Landing

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Caught between the necessity to assist the United States in a war on Iraq and a public opinion which overwhelmingly opposes a new regional conflict, Turkish leaders are facing mounting criticism over ongoing military preparations in Turkey's southeast. U.S. cargo ships are unloading military equipment there despite a decision by the Turkish parliament not to authorize the deployment of foreign troops on national soil. Washington hopes newly appointed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will secure a quick parliamentary reversal but, as RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports, things might not be that easy.

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chanting anti-American slogans, such as "Down with U.S. imperialism! Yankee, go home! We will not become U.S. soldiers! Yankee, go home," some 150 activists from the Turkish Communist Party yesterday attempted to force their way through the gates of the Iskenderun seaport to prevent the unloading of military equipment from U.S. cargo ships anchored off Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast.

The protesters clashed with Turkish paramilitary forces and army soldiers, who shot in the air and detained dozens of activists. No casualties were reported.

Though a relatively minor incident, the Iskenderun brawl is symptomatic of the tension that prevails in Turkey over Ankara's military cooperation with Washington in a possible war against neighboring Iraq.

Transfer of U.S. equipment at Iskenderun has been going on for a week now despite the parliament's failure early this month to approve the deployment on national soil of up to 62,000 U.S. troops supported by warplanes and helicopters.

On 11 March, an altercation broke out in Turkish parliament over ongoing U.S. military preparations.

Members of the opposition Republican's People Party (CHP), who on 1 March unanimously voted against the deployment of U.S. troops, publicly accused leaders of the Islamic-rooted Adalet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development) ruling party of being "America's lackeys."

The CHP, which has 178 representatives in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly, is asking for a parliamentary probe into accelerated U.S. military activities in southern Turkey. Addressing fellow party members, CHP chairman Deniz Baykal accused the AK government of deceiving legislators and an overwhelmingly antiwar public by illegally authorizing the Pentagon to use Turkish soil for war preparations.

Yielding to government pressure, lawmakers on 6 February grudgingly authorized American military engineers to upgrade at least half-a-dozen seaports and airfields for use in a possible attack against Iraq.

But Baykal claims that, two days later, the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Abdullah Gul secretly authorized Washington to establish military bases in Turkey's southeast region pending parliamentary approval of the deployment of U.S. troops.

Neither Gul nor AK chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who assumed control of the government on 11 March, has reacted yet to these accusations.

Meanwhile, American ships anchored off Iskenderun continue to unload vehicles and other military hardware. Turkey's private NTV television channel reports daily on continued activity around the port, showing lines of civilian Turkish trucks heavily loaded with U.S. equipment streaming towards the Iraqi border.

Kurdish media say part of this equipment, including missile batteries and other heavy weapons, has already reached Iraqi Kurdistan, which is beyond Baghdad's control.

On 7 March, Istanbul's daily "Hurriyet" reported that most convoys leaving Iskenderun were heading for Mardin, a city located some 30 kilometers north of the Iraqi border. The paper speculated that should Turkey eventually ban massive U.S. deployment, all equipment stored there could easily be transferred to northern Iraq's Kurdish areas.

Other Turkish media report that U.S. military hardware is reaching Mardin through the Mediterranean port of Mersin and Incirlik, the southern air base that American and British aircraft have been using for the past 12 years to enforce Iraq's northern no-fly zone.

The AP yesterday reported that the Pentagon had already set up two logistics bases in Turkey's southeast. The activities of the 4,000 U.S. soldiers believed to be deployed in the region are reportedly under strict Turkish military control.

Turkey's Army General Staff, which backs the possible deployment of American troops, claims ongoing U.S. preparations cannot be considered illegal because they are covered by a bilateral memorandum of understanding signed after parliament gave its go-ahead to the upgrading of military facilities. Details of the memorandum have never been published.

Turkey's civilian and military leaderships say they are opposed to a U.S.-led war on Iraq but claim the country should offer logistical support to Washington, if only to prevent a surge of Kurdish separatism within its own borders. Turkey's influential top army generals also believe Ankara's participation could help shorten the war and help alleviate its expected negative impact on the struggling national economy.

The Turkish government has said it may make another attempt to secure parliamentary approval for the deployment of U.S. troops. But no decision has been made yet.

Addressing reporters on 11 March shortly before resigning from office, Gul declined to speculate on what steps his successor might take, merely restating the position of AK's top leadership regarding Ankara's participation in a U.S.-led war on Iraq: "Talks and consultations [with AK deputies] are continuing. We hope this problem [the Iraqi crisis] will be solved without war. But if war breaks out we think Turkey cannot remain out of the process because what is at stake are its national interests."

Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis yesterday said it was still not certain a second parliamentary vote would take place.

Reflecting uneasiness among AK top leaders, Gul on 11 March made it clear the government would not make any new attempt unless it is sure the motion gets parliamentary approval. He also dismissed suggestions that the ongoing transfer of U.S. military equipment is illegal: "If the motion is submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly once again, it has to be approved. As for the current [U.S.] activities, they do not infringe on any agreement."

Challenging Turkey's hallmark party discipline, dozens of AK lawmakers earlier this month joined the opposition in denying national territory to the U.S. army.

AK parliament speaker Bulent Arinc, a fierce opponent of Turkey's participation in a U.S.-led war, has criticized the unloading of U.S. equipment as "de facto deployment."

Reports could not be confirmed that Erdogan is planning to dismiss all AK ministers who disapprove of a foreign troop presence when he forms his new cabinet later this week.

On 10 March, Erdogan suggested the government might wait to see what the United Nations Security Council will decide regarding the possible use of force against Iraq before submitting a new motion to parliament.

The U.S. has not yet abandoned the hope of using Turkey as a launching pad for a secondary ground invasion into Iraq from the north.

In the meantime, Pentagon planners are looking at ways to open a northern front against Baghdad without Turkey's help. Such scenarios reportedly entail airlifting troops and tanks from bases in southeastern Europe.

Even then, Turkey would still need to grant authorization to the U.S. to use its airspace.

On 11 March, Turkey's ambassador to the U.S., Faruk Lologlu, told journalists that talks to that effect were under way between Ankara and Washington. Lologlu also said the Pentagon had still not asked Turkey about over-flight permission and that any government decision to that effect would require parliamentary approval.

The U.S., which has promised Turkey an economic-aid package worth up to $30 billion in return for the use of its territory, has not made a secret of its hopes that Erdogan will be able to force dissident lawmakers to rethink their decision and approve a massive troop deployment.

But even that outcome is not certain. "The New York Times" yesterday reported that U.S. President George W. Bush called Erdogan on 10 March to sound him out but failed to get a positive answer. In the words of a White House official quoted by the daily, the Turkish leader did not appear as "responsive" as his American interlocutor would have hoped.

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