War threatens to damage ties between old allies U.S., Turkey

Move into Iraqi Kurd area, failure to let America base troops worry Washington

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CIZRE, Turkey -- For more than 50 years, Turkey has been one of the United States' staunchest allies, but that alliance is in increasing danger of becoming one of the casualties of the war against Iraq.

During months of planning for military action against Baghdad, the Pentagon seemed certain that Turkey would allow the American military to base up to 62,000 soldiers here and open a northern front against Iraq. The Bush administration also counted on support from this overwhelmingly Muslim nation to help prove that the United States was not waging a war against Islam.

But Turkey agreed only after weeks of tortuous diplomacy to allow overflights by American military planes -- the last NATO country to do so. It rejected being a host to American troops and then disclosed that it was sending 1,500 soldiers into northern Iraq to join its estimated 20,000 troops there.

That raises the danger of fighting between the Turks and Iraqi Kurds, who control northern Iraq.

The American military held out hope to the end that Turkey would reverse course and actively aid the war effort.

As late as last week, Army Corps of Engineers officers were supervising construction of a supply depot in the village of Nusaybin, west of here. The American soldiers drove away Monday in their Humvees, jeered by Turkish anti-war activists.

"Relations are the worst ever," said a glum Metin Munir, a prominent political commentator in Istanbul. "The Americans must be absolutely furious. They must feel betrayed."

For Turkey, the stakes are high. In the midst of a deepening recession, it has forfeited $6 billion in direct aid and billions more in loan guarantees that Washington had offered to help offset the economic effects of the war.

Turkey also may have jeopardized future financial assistance. Last year, the United States helped Turkey obtain $31 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

"Turkey has always counted on the United States as a safety net when its economy got into trouble," said Muir. "That is gone. Let's face it."

Publicly, neither the United States nor Great Britain has criticized Turkey's actions. "The Turkish government has played a constructive role in trying to calm tensions" in northern Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament yesterday.

They have little choice. "As it appears now, Iraq may not be that controllable," said Soli Ozel, a Turkish political analyst. "Do you want an angry, turned-off Turkey to the north? Or do you want a friendly Turkey? A lot may hinge on how this war evolves."

But some here fear that if the war goes badly, Turkey will be blamed for blocking the creation of a northern front.

"By keeping neutral, the Turks have become the trusted allies of Saddam," Munir said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "If there are big casualties, and if the war drags on, everyone will start blaming the Turks more than they do now. I think this has been such a total disaster."

But Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faced enormous pressure against cooperating with the United States. Polls found that 90 percent of the people surveyed oppose Turkish involvement in a war.

The conservative Muslim voters who put Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in power were even more hostile to the idea, vehemently opposed to support for American military action against another predominantly Muslim nation.

Despite the collapse of efforts to enlist Turkey's aid, the U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to persuade Turkey not to send more troops into northern Iraq because of the risk of clashes with Kurds.

Turks fear that if Iraqi Kurds seize the oil fields of Kirkuk and Mosul, they will have the economic base for creation of a breakaway independent Kurdish state, threatening Turkey's stability. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz warned last fall that a war against Baghdad would inevitably lead to the breakup of Turkey.

A 15-year guerrilla war between Turkish troops and Kurdish separatists here claimed more than 30,000 lives before a cease-fire in 1999.

Turkey's top military officer, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, is scheduled to hold a press conference today at which he is expected to announce plans to send thousands more troops into northern Iraq, including heavy armored units.

Some experts here had hoped that Ozkok would delay deployment and instead reserve the right to dispatch forces there if Iraqi Kurds move to establish an independent state.

But late yesterday, talks with Khalilzad apparently ended without an agreement, according to the Associated Press.

The deployment will raise the risk of friendly-fire incidents and could trigger deadly clashes between Turkish forces and Kurds.

But experts here say the Kurds will have as much to lose as the Turks and will likely react with restraint.

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