ANKARA, Turkey—The Turkish Parliament on Saturday rejected the deployment of thousands of American troops on Turkish soil in a severe blow to U.S. plans for a vital northern assault on Iraq.
The decision, which came as thousands of anti-war demonstrators marched throughout the capital city, prolongs weeks of uncertainty and delay that has frustrated U.S. officials as shiploads of military personnel and equipment sit at anchor. The rejection also could rupture Turkey's close relationship with the United States.
Senior government officials were meeting to discuss the possibility of another vote sometime next week.
But if Turkey ultimately refuses to become a launch pad for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, it could force the United States to mount a single, southern offensive that could lengthen a war in Iraq and lead to more casualties, analysts say.
One Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military is considering alternative plans for a war without staging in Turkey. "We have contingencies for everything."
In Baghdad, United Nations officials confirmed that Iraq had begun destroying nearly 100 Al Samoud missiles to comply with a Saturday deadline imposed by international weapons inspectors.
But the White House denounced the action as a "game of deception" that does little to satisfy U.S. demands that Iraq completely disarm.
President Bush, who faces growing opposition at home and abroad over a potential military invasion of Iraq, had pressed Turkey to allow U.S. troops to use the country for an offensive into northern Iraq.
The United States was hoping Turkey would allow in as many as 62,000 U.S. combat troops, 255 warplanes, and 65 helicopters to prepare for a possible north-south, two-pronged assault on Baghdad.
Getting Turkey on board will fill the last major gap the Pentagon needs for an invasion of Iraq. For days now, U.S. troops and supply ships off Turkey's coast have been impatiently waiting for the green light to unload thousands of tons of military equipment.
But Saturday's rejection could send the troops and military hardware to southern Kuwait to await a much-anticipated southern assault on Baghdad. In recent days, senior Pentagon officials, frustrated by the political gridlock in Turkey, have said they could find an alternative way to open a northern front, though it would not be the preferred option.
By using Turkey, U.S. forces could have spread into Iraq from the north to eventually link up with troops pushing into Iraq from the southern border in Kuwait. The strategy was designed to force Iraq to split its military, re-deploying elite Republican Guards from the south into northern Iraq to confront U.S. invaders.
"It's not an insurmountable blow, but it's a serious blow," said Dan Goure, a senior defense analyst for the Lexington Institute of Alexandria, Va.
"It means you can't force Iraq to look in two directions at the same time."
Anthony Cordesman, a specialist on Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said time is running out for the Americans.
"We're down to the wire. If they can't reverse it (the vote) almost immediately, we will have to go to the Gulf through the Suez Canal and put the assets into Kuwait and other Gulf states," he said. "That slows things down four to five days and means a major alteration in the war plan. . . . We simply cannot wait all that long. We are moving toward a crunch point in the war. Our readiness for war slips a day with every day that goes by."
The ruling Justice and Development Party is torn between Turkish public opinion, which is overwhelmingly opposed to war with Iraq, and the intense pressure from Washington, Turkey's historic ally.
Saturday's vote underscored this dilemma.
As parliament debated, more than 50,000 protesters chanted "No to war" and sang anti-war songs less than a mile away in an Ankara square, in one of the largest protests yet against a conflict in Iraq. One placard read: "Go Home Yankee."
The vote, carried out behind closed doors, ended with 264 votes in favor and 251 votes against the motion, even though the Justice party controlled a two-thirds majority in parliament. There were 19 abstentions.
The slim margin in favor of prompted the opposition Republican People's Party to challenge the results, arguing that the government was four short of a simple majority.
The Speaker of the Parliament, Bulent Arinc, agreed—and voided the vote on constitutional grounds. Now the government, if it chooses, must find the remaining votes it needs or present a similar resolution to the legislature on Tuesday, when it opens again.
But it was unclear whether the government will try for another vote. The Justice party's leader Tayyip Erdogan suggested on Saturday that he might accept the parliamentary decision.
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Turkey also will lose influence over the shape of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq where it wants to protect the rights of the Turkoman, an ethnic Turkish minority. Turkey would also have less power to suppress any Kurdish aspirations for an independent nation. It will likely be deprived of a $15 billion financial support package the U.S. is dangling to cushion Turkey's weak economy from any war-related financial shocks.
"This may stimulate politicians into voting for the agreement," said Ergin. "Today's vote has been a major blow to the prestige of the government and party leadership."
But accepting U.S. troops in Turkey defies Turkish public sentiment, and could threaten the political survival of the Justice Party. Many of the legislators voted against it because public opinion polls show that 90 percent of all Turks are strongly against war in Iraq.
The military has remained silent on Iraq even on Friday when the Justice party asked senior generals for their blessing to host U.S. troops. Analysts and western diplomats say the military's silence is designed to weaken the party and later blame them for any negative consequences from allowing U.S. troops to launch an attack from Turkey.
Had Turkey become a staging area for American soldiers, its military was to play a supervisory role in disarming Kurds—something that was likely to provoke trouble in the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq.
"The United States fully understands our opposition to any Turkish military intervention, even under a U.S. command," said Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls the portion of northern Iraq that directly borders Turkey. "It's not acceptable to us."
Barzani's strong comments came at the close of an Iraqi opposition conference held in Salahaddin, in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq.
But President Bush's envoy to the conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Washington was still hoping the Turkish military would participate in the "coalition of the willing."
As the Turkish action slowed U.S. war plans, movement was underway in Iraq toward destroying the regime's illicit missiles.
Hiro Ueki, spokesman for the U.N. inspectors in Baghdad, said in an interview from Baghdad that four missiles were crushed as weapons inspectors looked on.
Also destroyed was one of two casting chambers used in missile production.
Ueki said Iraq and the inspectors agreed on a "somewhat open-ended" timetable for destroying Iraq's roughly 100 Al Samoud missiles and relative components.
"If Iraq can accelerate the pace that will be in their interests," Ueki said.
He added that the speed of the destruction process would depend on how many missiles and other parts Iraq could provide.
Inspectors also conducted two private interviews on Friday, one with a biological scientist and one with an engineer, Ueki said.
More interviews were scheduled for Saturday, he said.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Diego Ibarguen in New York, Mark McDonald in northern Iraq, Jessica Guynn and Dave Montgomery, both in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.