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Turkey appears ready to let U.S. use its bases to launch Iraq attacks

ANKARA, Turkey—Under withering diplomatic pressure and tempted by billions of dollars in incentives, Turkey now appears ready to allow American troops to use its bases and facilities for a possible attack on Iraq.

Permission to use Turkish bases is crucial to the U.S. plan to blitz Iraq simultaneously from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to the south and Turkey to the north. From bases in Turkey, for example, the 101st Airborne Division could leapfrog the mountainous Turkish-Iraqi border, then use airfields in the part of northern Iraq that opponents of Saddam Hussein control to strike fast and deep into the heart of the country.

A formal agreement hadn't been reached by late Tuesday, but diplomats and policy advisers in Ankara said the government had privately surrendered to American demands for prewar troop deployments, including the use of as many as five Turkish air bases in eastern Turkey.

"America is our most important strategic ally," a Turkish foreign policy adviser said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Without the Americans, we can't even defend our own airspace. We simply don't have the luxury of saying no to them."

"Negotiations are still going on, at lots of levels," said a Western diplomat, who also asked not to be identified. "There are generals, colonels and majors flying all over the place, back and forth, people from both sides."

A staunch longtime U.S. ally, and the only predominately Muslim member of NATO, Turkey reportedly has agreed to accept some 12,000 American troops on its soil. An estimated 1,700 U.S. Air Force personnel already are stationed in Turkey at the Incirlik air base, where they conduct daily missions over the no-fly zone in northern Iraq.

American war planners originally wanted more than 100,000 air and ground troops based in southeastern Turkey. But the newly elected government in Ankara balked at such a large deployment, saying it could never sell such a plan to its skeptical public.

Recent polls show that more than 80 percent of Turks oppose a war in Iraq, with just 10 percent willing to accept more U.S. troops on Turkish soil.

Military and political analysts in Ankara and Istanbul said most of the troops probably would arrive at the Mediterranean ports of Iskenderun and Mersin, and at various Turkish air bases, principally Diyarbakir, Batman and Incirlik. They would then travel overland to the southeastern town of Silopi, hard by the Iraqi border. From there it is only 60 miles down the M2 highway to the important Iraqi oil town of al Mosul.

The American diplomatic and military pressure on Turkey has been ferocious, diplomats here say, but it hasn't been all stick and no carrot. An economic assistance plan is in the works that probably will include several billion dollars in direct financial aid, a large reduction in Turkey's huge military debt and U.S. influence on the International Monetary Fund to release $1.6 billion from a $16 billion IMF aid program.

The Turkish economy is in its worst depression since the end of World War II and needs the financial bump. Many Turks express anger and frustration over the heavy-handed pressure from the American administration. Some see the financial inducements as little more than bribery.


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): IRAQ-TURKEY.