U.S.-Turkish Tensions Mount Over Aid, Troops
By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters - 19 Feb) - The United States said on Wednesday it had made a final offer of economic aid to Turkey to secure access to its bases for a possible invasion of Iraq, and was preparing to deploy American troops elsewhere in the region if Ankara rejected it.
"There comes a moment when plans must be made, decisions must be made, and (negotiations) cannot stretch on indefinitely," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, issuing what amounted to a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum.
While Turkish bases would be "desirable" as a springboard for a possible invasion of Iraq from the north, Fleischer said the U.S. military had the flexibility to carry out its mission without Turkey's help.
With Washington indicating a possible invasion could be just weeks away, U.S. war planners were counting on a quick agreement.
But Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday there were no plans for a parliamentary vote this week on allowing U.S. troops on Turkish soil for a possible attack.
"A date for the motion has not been set either for during the week or the weekend," Erdogan told NTV television.
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul spoke by telephone with Secretary of State Colin Powell, but a written statement from Gul's office indicated the two NATO allies were no closer to reaching an agreement.
In exchange for Turkish help, the United States has offered Ankara an economic aid package that includes $6 billion in grants and U.S. government backing for up to $20 billion in loans that Ankara could secure through private banks.
But Turkey has, so far, balked at the offer, demanding more than $30 billion in assistance. Much to Washington's displeasure, Ankara deferred any decision to ask parliament to approve U.S. troop deployments pending an agreement.
Frustrated by Ankara's demands, White House officials dug in, describing the $26 billion aid package as final.
"There's not a lot of time left," Fleischer said. "Turkey has heard authoritatively what the position of the United States government is. And now Turkey has a decision to make and we look forward to hearing that decision."
With U.S. navy ships steaming into the region, U.S. officials said the possibility is growing that Washington will redirect forces southwards to join a main invasion force gathering near Iraq's southern borders.
"Turkey, of course, is desirable from a strategic point of view for any military staging, but the military of the United States is sufficiently flexible that whatever decision is made the United States will still be successful in carrying out any military operations," Fleischer said.
POTENTIAL DIPLOMATIC FALLOUT
Facing record U.S. budget deficits, Bush is under pressure at home to limit the size of any aid package, which must be approved by Congress.
Congressional committees were told last month that the United States was offering no more than $14 billion to Turkey.
The package has since doubled in size and congressional sources say the administration has yet to brief them on the details. One congressional aide described the amounts sought by Turkey as "mind-boggling."
A complete breakdown in negotiations could hurt Turkish relations with the United States, which has backed Ankara through two recent economic crises and pressed its case for European Union membership.
But U.S. officials said it was premature to speculate about any diplomatic fallout.
"There's a long-standing strategic relationship that we have had with Turkey. And there's a real recognition that in the event of any basing of American forces out of Turkey, it will carry risks for Turkey economically," Fleischer said.
The United States is demanding that the proposed loans fall under the terms of Turkey's program with the International Monetary Fund, a condition Ankara resisted.
Officials are also sparring over the command structure for U.S. and Turkish troops that could enter northern Iraq.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Turkey is in a bind politically. Opinion polls show four out of five Turks oppose a possible war. Many fear the fallout could undermine the country's weak economy and stir unrest among Turkey's Kurds who mainly live in a region bordering northern Iraq.
But Turkish support could prove critical in shortening any war and cutting any American casualties by allowing U.S. troops to launch a secondary, northern front into Iraq to relieve a main invasion from Kuwait.