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Iraq: Turkey's Stand A Setback For U.S. War Plans -- And More

Experts say Turkey's refusal -- if it stands -- to permit U.S. troops to use its soil for a war with Iraq makes an invasion effort more difficult. Analysts say the decision may also present the United States with problems after any conflict.

Washington, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says it is not overly concerned that Turkey has rejected plans to deploy U.S. forces on its soil for a possible northern battlefront in a war with Iraq.

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul could not win enough support in Turkey's parliament on 1 March to approve the deployment of about 60,000 U.S. troops. The proposal may be resubmitted to parliament, but Gul yesterday declined to say when that might be.

Meanwhile, U.S. ships carrying troops, tanks, artillery, and supplies wait in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off the Turkish coast in hopes that Ankara will soon change its mind.

In Washington, the administration of President George W. Bush expressed disappointment in the negative vote, which means the United States would have a more difficult task of establishing a northern front against the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if there is a war.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that Bush is confident of victory over Iraq with or without Turkey's help. "There is no question that the Turkish approach would have been a preferable approach, but other approaches are available. There are other options from the military point of view, and the president [Bush] has every confidence that those other options will indeed be militarily successful," Fleischer said.

Military analysts interviewed by RFE/RL agree that U.S. forces will face complications if Turkey's parliament does not reverse its position. One is retired Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer.

Allard said the U.S. military must devise a way to ensure that allied forces can maintain a meaningful northern campaign against Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, to coincide with the southern campaign, which would begin in Kuwait. Second, he said, a strong U.S. force in northern Iraq is essential to secure the oil fields in that region. "What you have to have in prosecuting a ground attack is a way to get those ground forces in, and having gotten them in, to sustain and supply them. So it makes very little sense to me to even think of a campaign against Iraq that's worthy of the name that does not include that northern front," Allard said.

If the United States cannot use Turkey as a northern base of operations, Allard said, then the Pentagon will have to use a massive military airlift to place forces and support troops in northern Iraq. This would mean lighter-armed troops and, probably, fewer tanks and artillery pieces to help secure the region, according to John Wolfstahl, the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy-research center in Washington.

Wolfstahl said this creates its own problems, but he added that the job can be done if the U.S. military is patient. "As we've learned, it's very difficult to airlift the heavy artillery and the heavy tanks that we need than it is to base them from Turkey. It doesn't mean that we can't do it, it just means it's going to be more complicated, it's going to take longer, there are more risks involved, and that's why the U.S. military has preferred Turkey as a first option," Wolfstahl said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy center, said that in his opinion, the option of airlifting troops, tanks, and support is not the best alternative to basing U.S. forces in Turkey.

Without Turkey, O'Hanlon said, the only way to get a credible force into northern Iraq is to reroute the U.S. ships that are now off the Turkish coast through the Suez Canal, around the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Persian Gulf to Kuwait City. From there, he said, they would travel about 1,000 kilometers to northern Iraq, where they could finally begin a northern offensive. "I don't take this option [airlifting forces to northern Iraq] very seriously because, if you're trying to seize oil fields or prevent the Turks and the Kurds from fighting each other, you've got to have a big force in place to make sure that you are robustly defend[ing] yourself and that you're seen as the most powerful force in the region. So I do not think airlifting is a serious alternative to putting in [Turkey] mechanized, heavy forces for most purposes," O'Hanlon said.

O'Hanlon acknowledged that rerouting the ships around the Arabian Peninsula would have a major drawback: a delay of perhaps 14 days on the U.S. war timetable.

According to O'Hanlon, this would be a major setback for U.S. war planning because it would require allied forces to fight in increasingly warm weather while burdened by heavy suits to help protect them from possible biological and chemical weapons. He said it also would mean that they might miss the opportunity to begin their attack when nights are darkest -- under the new moon. The next new moon will be in early April.

Losing basing rights in Turkey could also have a profound effect on U.S. plans for Iraq that go beyond military action, according to Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Non-Proliferation Project.

Cirincione said that without a presence in southeastern Turkey and an early, strong presence in northern Iraq, the United States may not be able to guarantee stability in both regions. He said that well-armed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq may decide to take over Kirkuk, a city that controls the region where about half of Iraq's vast oil reserves are to be found.

According to Cirincione, this may embolden the Kurds to declare an independent state, with great oil wealth as their seed money. "This is exactly one of the situations that people have been warning about. We think we're going to go in there and stabilize the situation, but war can be a profoundly destabilizing event. It could set off fissures and cracks and upheavals that the instigators of the war had never anticipated," Cirincione said.

Cirincione said that this not only might tear Iraq in two, it might also encourage Kurds in neighboring southeastern Turkey to join forces with fellow Kurds in northern Iraq. He said that members of Turkey's parliament should weigh such a result if they vote again on whether to allow U.S. troops to operate from their country.