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Turkey: Mulling Decision On Iraq War, Prime Minister Probes Arab Neighbors

Turkey is a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East and NATO's only member in the region. As such, it is widely expected to lend its support to any U.S. military action in Iraq. Ankara has so far dragged its feet, telling Washington it needs time to decide whether to cooperate in an attack against its southern neighbor. But analysts believe that while advocating a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, Ankara knows it is bound to eventually participate in any war against Baghdad, as Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul's recent tour of regional Arab countries indicates.

Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday wrapped up a Middle East tour officials in Ankara say is a last-ditch attempt to avert war in the region.

But experts believe Gul's regional tour, which took him to Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, is more than a pitch for peace. They say it is also aimed at sounding out Turkey's Arab neighbors should Ankara decide to endorse U.S. military action against Iraq.

Talking to reporters in Damascus on 4 January, Gul said he and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed concrete ways of avoiding war, but he gave no details.

The Turkish leader was equally secretive about the results of his talks yesterday with Jordanian King Abdullah and Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb, simply referring to "steps" he said could help preserve peace in the region. Gul also said he and the Arab leaders he had met agreed to "consolidate efforts" to avert a conflict.

Seyfi Tashan is the director of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with Turkey's Foreign Ministry. He told RFE/RL that Gul's regional tour was first and foremost an effort by Ankara to prevent a war that could bring economic and social destabilization to the region. "What [Gul] is trying to see is [whether] there is a peaceful solution through joint action of Arabs and Turks, the neighbors of Iraq -- [whether] the matter could be resolved peacefully. I think that this is what [Gul] is searching [for]. Before committing itself to the use of force, Turkey would like to see all local interests come together and [put] sufficient pressure on Iraq," Tashan said.

The Turkish prime minister will also travel to Saudi Arabia on 11 January, and he has said he hopes to visit Iran as well.

Ankara is also due to dispatch State Minister Kursat Tuzmen to Baghdad soon to discuss the regional situation with the Iraqi leadership. A former foreign-trade undersecretary, Tuzmen was responsible for overseeing economic relations with Iraq in Turkey's previous government.

Ankara, which claims its support during the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War cost it some $40 billion in lost revenue, has tried to rebuild trade ties with Baghdad in recent years. Talking to reporters on 2 January, Tuzmen said Ankara wanted to avoid a repetition of what happened 12 years ago.

Turkey, which shares an extended border with Iraq, hopes Washington will offer compensation for the potential strain a conflict will put on its ailing economy.

The U.S. administration is believed to be considering an offer of up to $3 billion in immediate aid to its Turkish ally, followed by up to $20 billion in loan guarantees and some military assistance. Although Ankara has officially denied putting a price tag on its support, it reportedly is hoping to receive even more compensation.

Turkey's new leadership, like their predecessors, say they fear renewed tension in the Middle East could jeopardize efforts to rebuild regional economic cooperation while Ankara is still struggling to stem its worst economic recession in nearly 60 years.

Turkey also claims any regime change in Baghdad could reignite political unrest in its separatist southeastern provinces that, like northern Iraq, are predominantly populated by Kurds.

In comments published on 4 January in the Istanbul-based "Aksam" daily, Gul reiterated his reservations about stirring trouble in the region. "Iraq is like Pandora's box," he said in an interview with columnist Tuncay Ozkan. "We do not want Pandora's box to be opened there."

Addressing reporters upon his return to Ankara yesterday, Gul called upon Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to avoid what he had earlier described as an "unwanted war" by fully cooperating with the international community in providing evidence that his country does not hoard weapons of mass destruction. "There is a resolution of the United Nations. Under this resolution, experts are now making investigations in Iraq, and they will present a report on January [27]. First of all, Iraq should do everything so that a positive report is published. It should not allow any hesitation, and it must cooperate in a clear and transparent way," Gul said.

As NATO's only member in the region, Turkey is widely expected to offer logistical support to the United States in the instance of a war against Iraq. But Ankara has been dragging its feet on making a firmer commitment to help U.S. President George W. Bush solve the Iraq crisis through use of force.

Local press reports suggest U.S. requests for support include permission to deploy up to 80,000 troops in Turkey for a possible land invasion from the north.

Gul has said that he is not opposed to offering Turkey's military airfields and airspace to U.S. warplanes, a stance he reiterated on 5 January in an interview with CNN. But he has also warned that only the Turkish parliament is mandated to decide on the kind of support Ankara may eventually offer Washington.

In an interview published yesterday in the "Hurriyet" daily, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said public opinion in Turkey remains largely opposed to a war against Iraq. Therefore, he warned, parliament is likely to vote against the deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish soil.

Yet some experts say Ankara's support of a U.S.-led military campaign against its southern neighbor is, in the end, inevitable. Therefore, like foreign-policy analyst Tashan, they believe the goal of Gul's Middle East tour was twofold: "It [was] not a single-purpose trip. I think [Gul] wanted to see [whether] the Arabs were predisposed to do something, to take action or whatever steps with Saddam. And, at the same time, [he wanted to] explain Turkey's position, that is, probably explain that Turkey cannot stay outside if there is a war in Iraq."

Reporting on a Gul briefing to Turkish journalists on 30 December, the editor in chief of the Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News," Ilnur Cevik, wrote that the prime minister left participants with the impression that Ankara is prepared to join a U.S.-led anti-Hussein coalition "and realizes that war is practically impossible to avoid."

Cevik said leaders of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development moderate Islamic party were now trying to buy time to convince both their constituencies and legislators that Ankara should cooperate in a U.S.-led operation lest it be sidelined in the process of deciding the future of Iraq.

Likening Gul to a tightrope walker, the journalist said the prime minister was trying to legitimize his eventual support for a U.S.-led military action in the eyes of Turkey's public while striving not to exhaust Washington's patience.

Analysts generally agree that Turkey's new leadership, which has vowed to cooperate with Western donors, has virtually no room to maneuver.

Tashan said he believes Ankara is bound to participate in one form or another in a war against Iraq. "Turkey is in northern Iraq already. Whether Turkey will take part in hostilities against Saddam's forces is another matter. But Turkey will be present in northern Iraq to safeguard its own interests," Tashan said.

Turkey has been maintaining troops in northern Iraq for the past decade or so, officially to pursue armed militants of the now-defunct Kurdistan Workers Party who have sought refuge in the area.

But Ankara, which has reportedly sent army reinforcements to the region, is also suspected of coveting Iraq's oil-rich provinces of Kirkuk and Mosul, both former Ottoman territories located in Kurdish-held provinces.

Foreign Minister Yakis yesterday told "Hurriyet" that, should Ankara determine that it has legitimate rights over the two provinces, it should take its case to the international community.

Turkey strongly opposes any plan that would leave Kirkuk and Mosul under the control of either of Iraq's two rival Kurdish groups, Masud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party or Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Officials in Ankara believe the two groups are secretly planning to create an independent state.

Ankara is also citing the presence in northern Iraq of a moderately strong Turkic-speaking minority, known as Turkomans, to justify its right to participate in any decision making on the future of its southern Arab neighbor.

Speaking to reporters in Amman yesterday, Gul reiterated Ankara's official stance, saying Iraq's territorial integrity should be preserved and that its oil riches should benefit its entire population.

In Tashan's opinion, Turkey has both "interests and obligations" in Iraq, and its regional agenda remains unaltered despite the recent change of leadership in Ankara.