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Turkey: Powell Leaves Iraqi Issue Open After Ankara Talks

Prague, 5 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell today held talks with Turkish leaders on the second stop of a 10-nation tour to rally support for the U.S.-led campaign against international terrorism.

Powell met successively with Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer before departing for Brussels to attend a NATO summit.

Powell's visit came amid speculation that Washington may be thinking of striking Iraq once the military campaign in Afghanistan is over.

The United States claims Baghdad is developing biological weapons. It also considers Iraq, which remains shackled by an 11-year-old UN-sponsored economic embargo, a state that sponsors terrorism.

No proof has emerged officially that Baghdad had anything to do with the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Yet on 29 November, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that Iraq's ambassador to Ankara, Farouk Hijazi, had been recalled to his country over allegations he had ties with Osama bin Laden, the main suspect behind the 11 September suicide plane crashes.

Baghdad denies the charge, claiming the recall of its ambassador is part of a planned rotation of diplomats.

Speaking to reporters today after his talks with Cem, Powell reiterated U.S. President George W. Bush's position regarding Iraq. "The president has indicated for a long time that we are concerned about Iraq, that it tries to develop weapons of mass destruction. And we are doing everything we can to keep it from getting such weapons. Such weapons are dangerous to the region, as well as to the world. We also know that Iraq has been a sponsor of terrorism over the years, and that continues to be a concern of ours."

Iraqi leaders, who expelled all United Nations weapons inspectors from the country three years ago, deny all accusations leveled against them by the U.S. administration.

In veiled threats against Baghdad on 26 November, Bush urged Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to let UN inspectors back into his country or face the consequences. Bush did not elaborate on what his response would be if Saddam refuses, saying only the Iraqi leader would "find out."

The idea of possible U.S. military action against Iraq has raised concern in Turkey, where Bush's latest comments triggered a slide in financial markets.

In remarks reported on 4 December by Turkey's Anadolu Ajansi news agency shortly before Powell's arrival, President Sezer said Turkey -- NATO's only Muslim member country and Washington's main ally in the region -- is against any strikes on its southern neighbor.

Asked by reporters today whether the U.S. had made any request of Turkey in anticipation of a possible move against Iraq, Powell answered: "President [Bush] has made no decisions with respect to what the next phase in our campaign against terrorism might be, whether it is directed against any particular country. Nor has he received any recommendations yet from his advisers as to what we might do next. So I was able to provide this information to the President [Sezer], to the Prime Minister [Ecevit] and to the Foreign Minister [Cem]. And, with respect to what would be expected from Turkey, that is not even a question on the table now because we have not asked anything from Turkey because no decision has been made or recommendations offered yet to President Bush on the question you asked me."

Cem, who reiterated his country's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, mentioned Iraq among the topics he had discussed with Powell but gave few details.

"We have reiterated Turkey's position that Iraq should fully comply with UN resolutions and [that] in doing so, it [would] be able to have more goodwill support from [its] neighbors."

Government officials in Ankara have expressed concern that any large-scale military action against Saddam's regime would be too great a risk for Turkey, which has moved steadily to rebuild ties with Baghdad over the past few years.

The Turkish government claims that international sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990 have cost Ankara up to $45 billion in lost revenue.

The government also says that political chaos in Iraq could reignite war in Turkey's southeastern Kurdish provinces, which have been living under emergency rule since 1987.

Asked today whether Powell succeeded in reassuring Turkish officials, Cem eluded the question, saying both countries are engaged in what he called a "substantial dialogue" over Iraq. "Otherwise," Cem added, "I would not comment on speculations."

Turkish leaders, who are battling to cope with the worst domestic economic turmoil since the end of World War II, say political instability in the region could jeopardize their efforts to resolve the crisis.

But some analysts say economic hardship could have the reverse effect, prompting Turkey to join a new U.S.-led war on Saddam's regime in return for more financial aid.

The International Monetary Fund has already made a firm pledge of $19 billion in financial aid to Turkey, and negotiations are under way for an additional $10 billion loan to help Ankara plug an expected budget gap next year. IMF executive director Willy Kiekens is due in the Turkish capital next week to conclude the talks.

Powell today gave another encouraging sign to Ankara, saying he will discuss with U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans ways to lift trade barriers with Turkey.

Addressing a defense industry seminar in Ankara on 28 November, Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu hinted that Turkey could backtrack on the Iraqi issue. Anadolu Ajansi quoted him as saying: "We have officially said, again and again, that we do not want an operation in Iraq. But new conditions could bring new evaluations on the agenda."

Cakmakoglu declined to elaborate, saying his comments were "not based on any specific information or meaning."

Any large-scale campaign against Iraq would require the use of Turkey's southern Incirlik air base. Incirlik is already home to some 50 U.S. and British warplanes that are implementing the "no-fly zone" regime imposed on Iraq's northern provinces to protect ethnic Kurd populations from Saddam's regime.

The English-language "Turkish Daily News" newspaper today gave another indication that Turkey -- which was one of the first countries to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq 10 years ago -- might eventually agree to any decision Washington may come up with. The newspaper quoted unidentified top defense officials as saying that Ankara might conditionally support U.S. military plans.

Powell's visit to Ankara was initially expected to focus on Cyprus and the European Union's planned rapid reaction force. But clear progress was made on both issues before his arrival.

Yesterday (4 December), Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash agreed to resume UN-sponsored proximity talks over the reunification of the divided island. Denktash agreed to negotiate directly with his Greek counterpart Glafcos Clerides, dropping earlier demands to first receive international recognition of his breakaway state.

An EU candidate member, Cyprus has been territorially divided between Turkish and Greek communities since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the island's northeastern third in response to a coup backed by Greece's military junta. Failure to reach an agreement on Cyprus's future could seriously affect the EU enlargement process.

Powell welcomed yesterday's breakthrough, saying it is a "first step" in the right direction. He also welcomed Turkey's reported willingness to compromise over plans to let a new European rapid reaction force use NATO assets.

Although Turkey has not formally started membership talks with the EU, it wants to have a say on how, when, and where the 60,000-strong force might be deployed. Ankara notably fears the force might be used against its interests in Cyprus or the Aegean Sea, both areas being bones of contention with Greece.

But Ankara reportedly softened its stance after it received assurances last week that it will be consulted on a case-by-case basis.