Turkey Signals Delay in U.S. Troop Deployments
By Ralph Boulton
ANKARA (Reuters - 17 Feb) - Turkey signaled on Monday it was delaying a decision urgently awaited by Washington this week on allowing American troops to deploy on Turkish soil for a possible invasion of Iraq.
Speaker Bulent Arinc said a proposal to admit troops, estimated at tens of thousands, would not as expected be presented to parliament on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said he would talk with Washington to iron out differences on the terms of Turkish help in a war he would dearly wish to forestall.
Down on the Iraqi border, military sources said Turkish and U.S. military officials were meeting Iraqi Kurdish groups who control northern Iraq. Witnesses saw a helicopter cross the border to an army base for talks aimed at easing tension between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds that could hamper any U.S. action.
Washington, clearly impatient to begin deployments for an action some say may be less than a month away, had expected parliament to approve the dispatch of troops on Tuesday.
The speaker said Turkey must first assess how to handle the damage war might cause its fragile economy. He said Ankara strongly favored a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis.
"The prime ministry will not send the proposal to parliament tomorrow," speaker Arinc said. The prime minister's office was not available for comment.
Military experts say a secondary northern front on Iraq opened from Turkey would ease a possible main attack from the flatter south, raising the pressure on Iraqi troops and probably cutting U.S. casualties. Gul accepts that ultimately Ankara must back its closest ally but seeks guarantees for its own security.
"There are certain points we give importance to," Gul told reporters before leaving for Brussels where he will meet European Union leaders at an extraordinary summit on Iraq.
"Without reaching an agreement on those points, I believe it will be difficult to persuade parliament...We will relay our concerns to the United States today and we will do what is necessary in line with that."
Gul, prime minister since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in a landslide victory in November, was not scheduled to return to Ankara until Tuesday night.
A security source in Diyarbakir said two U.S. transport planes had landed at the main airbase in the southeastern city on Sunday. The total number of U.S. personnel there upgrading facilities under an interim agreement now numbered about 1,000.
MEETING ON THE IRAQI BORDER
Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis and Economy Minister Ali Babacan were in Washington at the weekend discussing terms for co-operation. They returned to Ankara saying issues were still outstanding, and on Sunday military and political leaders discussed the outlook.
Turkey is seeking a financial package, which analysts say could total between $4 billion and $15 billion or more to cushion it from the economic impact of any war. Tourism will be hit, interest rates may rise and oil costs could soar, all threatening a key IMF crisis recovery program.
Turkey also appears to be at odds about the role its own troops might play in northern Iraq. While it seeks to avoid combat, it is eager to remain independent of any coalition command in monitoring events and ensuring no independent Kurdish state emerges in an area beyond Baghdad's control since 1991.
Turkey fears establishment of a Kurdish state there in the chaos of war could rekindle its own armed Kurdish separatism that resulted in some 30,000 deaths in the 1980s and 1990s.
A military source told Reuters leading officials of two Kurdish groups running northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), met U.S. and Turkish military commanders on Monday.
The meeting was held at a Turkish army base in Silopi near the Iraqi border, the source said on condition of anonymity.
Turkish troops have been in northern Iraq since the 1990s, protecting a Turkmen minority and pursuing Turkish Kurdish rebels who have retreated to the mountains there.