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Turkish parliament delays vote on allowing U.S. troops on bases

ISTANBUL, Turkey—A heated parliamentary debate on Tuesday delayed a vote over the deployment of as many as 62,000 U.S. troops, 255 warplanes and 65 helicopters in Turkey for a possible invasion of Iraq.

Turkey's Cabinet on Monday overwhelmingly endorsed an accord to host U.S. troops. But many members of parliament appeared to differ with their ruling Justice and Development Party, and said they would vote their consciences, opening the possibility that they could defeat the measure.

Even so, observers said it was just a question of time before dissenting members of parliament were pressured into toeing the party line. An approval could come as early as Wednesday.

"No Turkish government can object to American expectations," said Huseiyn Bagci, a prominent political scientist in Ankara and a former government adviser. "Ideologically, the people say no. But we are pragmatic people, and pragmatic people say yes."

Any U.S. war effort would be made more difficult if Turkey does not host U.S. ground forces.

Polls show more than 80 percent of Turks are opposed to a war in Iraq, and there have been large anti-war demonstrations in Turkey's major cities and outside the Incirlik Air Base, where several thousand U.S. Air Force personnel are permanently stationed.

"If it is not approved, democracy would be strengthened," Deputy Prime Minister Ertugrul Yalcinbayir told legislators, suggesting that he may vote against the pact.

Others said U.S. and Turkish officials were still holding talks, and that they had not seen the full agreement.

"We're on the same boat. The guys in the Cabinet are my friends," said Egemen Bagis, a member of parliament from the ruling party. "Political ethics tells me to vote affirmatively. But my conscience tells me to vote only when I've heard the details."

"The real issue is the economy," said Jenny White, a professor and Turkey expert at Boston University. "It's not because they're worried about the imminent slaughter of their Muslim brothers."

Many of the U.S. soldiers were dispatched to Turkey weeks ago but have had to wait on troop ships in the eastern Mediterranean while Ankara and Washington hammered out an economic assistance package.

Launching a ground assault from southern Turkey into northern Iraq—the so-called "northern front"—has been an integral part of U.S. battle plans for a possible war against Iraq. Strategists have said an assault from Turkey would likely shorten the war and reduce casualties.

The Bush administration was surprised by the tough line taken by Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally and a NATO member for the past 50 years. In recent weeks, negotiations grew tense and difficult as Ankara demanded an economic and military aid package said to be worth $26 billion.

"These hardball negotiations are something the U.S. isn't used to from the Turks," White said. "They were really burned the last time. The U.S. was supposed to make up Turkey's losses (after the 1991 Gulf War), but, basically, our check bounced."

The final aid package is expected to total some $15 billion in a combination of outright economic and military aid, guaranteed or low-interest loans, waivers on some U.S. trade restrictions, and a write-down of Turkey's military debt. Washington will also exert pressure on the International Monetary Fund to continue to disburse payments from the Fund's $16 billion assistance package.

Turkish leaders have wanted to avoid a repeat of the financial shocks they suffered after the 1991 Gulf War, which they blame for their current economic crisis. A bustling trade with Iraq evaporated and revenues from tourism fell dramatically—right along with Ankara's credit rating.

To bolster its case, Ankara recently produced a study showing economic repercussions from the Gulf War cost more than $125 billion.

Turkish leaders also sought assurances that the United States would help prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in post-war northern Iraq. Ankara fears that could embolden its own restive Kurdish population to seek greater autonomy, especially if there's agitation from the 5,000 well-armed Kurdish guerrillas who fled to northern Iraq after the Turkish military put down their 15-year insurgency in 1999.

It's widely expected the Turkish military will send a huge force of its own into northern Iraq, trailing the American forces and perhaps eventually outnumbering them. Such a move, U.S. planners say, could jeopardize the war effort and greatly complicate the post-Saddam political landscape.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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