The Turkish government yesterday gave its go-ahead to the deployment of U.S. troops on national soil for a possible war in neighboring Iraq. This decision is crucial for U.S. war plans, but its implementation still requires the approval of Turkish lawmakers and the signing of a comprehensive agreement between Ankara and Washington on a number of political, economic, and military issues.
Prague, 25 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish and U.S. officials are still negotiating the fine points of an agreement that would permit tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to be stationed on Turkish territory. Yesterday, the government agreed in principle to such an arrangement and will now submit a resolution to that effect to the national parliament.
The decision, reached at an emergency cabinet meeting, is essential for Washington's military plans, as it would allow the United States to open a second front against Iraq that could take the burden off the primary thrust expected to come from the Persian Gulf region.
The Turkish government was originally due to submit its draft motion to parliament last night, but the decision was postponed.
Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin today said a motion authorizing the deployment of up to 62,000 foreign troops for a six-month period would be handed over to parliament in the evening. The draft also clears the way for the dispatch of Turkish troops to northern Iraq.
Addressing fellow party members in parliament today, the chairman of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) defended the cabinet's decision, saying it serves Turkey's national interests. Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said he hoped AKP deputies would vote in favor of the motion. "The government has sent or will send the Grand National Assembly a motion allowing the Turkish armed forces to be dispatched to foreign countries and foreign troops to be stationed in Turkey," Erdogan said. "You should know that as the government that presides over our nation, our [cabinet] is taking the greatest care in making decisions that are the most suitable to the future of our state and nation."
AKP legislators are due to meet early tomorrow to discuss the motion, and it remains unclear whether parliamentary hearings would start that same day or on 27 February, as suggested by some Turkish media.
Also unclear is the outcome of U.S.-Turkish talks over troop deployment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis yesterday insisted that no draft resolution could possibly be sent to parliament before a comprehensive agreement is reached with Washington on all pending issues. U.S. and Turkish officials held talks overnight in a bid to finalize the agreement but apparently failed to reach a breakthrough. Turkey's Anadolu news agency today quoted officials close to the talks as saying obstacles remain on military, political, and economic issues.
Speaking to reporters early today in Istanbul, parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc said the government had not yet submitted any document to the Turkish Grand National Assembly.
In Washington yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed the Turkish cabinet's decision. But he said a number of points needed clarification before the remaining obstacles to a U.S. landing are removed. "We continue to make good progress in the talks with Turkey," Fleischer said, adding that he was "pleased with the actions taken by the Turkish government." Fleischer said there are still some fine points to be clarified, but "this is a very serious matter and the democratic country of Turkey is taking it seriously, has responded seriously, has listened carefully, and we're working together."
Turkey has been pressing the United States to compensate for the economic, political, and military risks related to any possible involvement in a war on Iraq. Last week, Washington offered $5 billion in aid and $10 billion in loans to cushion Ankara's fragile economy from the consequences of war.
Turkey, which has fought a 15-year war with armed Kurdish separatists in its southeastern provinces, is also seeking firm U.S. guarantees that no autonomous or independent Kurdistan will emerge from the rubble of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Ankara fears any such development may reignite troubles in the Kurdish regions of its own Anatolian heartland.
Turkish leaders, who are considering sending tens of thousands soldiers to Iraq's Kurdish-held northern areas -- officially to prevent a massive influx of Iraqi refugees -- are also reluctant to put their troops under U.S. command. Finally, they want U.S. guarantees regarding the future of northern Iraq's Turkic community, known as Turkomans. The exact number of Turkomans living in Iraq is not known, but estimates range from 300,000 to 2.5 million.
There has also been strong opposition among Turkish legislators to allowing foreign troops onto national territory for a possible ground offensive against Iraq. An estimated 90 percent of the population opposes war in Iraq.
Addressing reporters yesterday in Ankara, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Abdullatif Sener said many cabinet members are also against the idea of Turkey actively supporting U.S. military plans under present circumstances. "During the discussions [at the cabinet meeting], a large number of cabinet members did not consider the developments satisfactory. However, toward the end of the discussions it was decided to send a resolution to parliament," Sener said.
Parliamentary speaker Arinc said yesterday that he believed a motion allowing the deployment of U.S. troops before the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq would be "incorrect."
Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister Ertugrul Yalcinbayir today also expressed opposition to the motion, saying the possible deployment of U.S. troops had no "international legitimacy." "Should this motion not be passed [by parliament]," he said, "there would be greater unity, more peace, and greater democracy in Turkey."
U.S. ships carrying heavy equipment for use in a possible northern front have been waiting for several days off Turkey's Mediterranean coast, and U.S. military engineers have been working for the last two weeks or so to upgrade a half dozen seaports and airfields in this NATO member state. Any further delay in deploying troops on Turkish soil could affect the Pentagon's war plans.