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Turkish military backs deployment of U.S. troop in Turkey for Iraq invasion

ANKARA, Turkey—Turkey's military on Wednesday boosted American hopes of using Turkey for a northern invasion of Iraq by publicly backing the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops on Turkish soil.

Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the head of the armed forces, said Turkey would suffer economically and politically if it sat on the sidelines during a war in Iraq.

Warning that Turkey could not stop a war, he argued that opening a northern front against Iraq would shorten the war and that "there would be less pain ... fewer people will die."

He also issued a veiled warning to Iraqi Kurds that Turkey was prepared to defend its interests in northern Iraq, namely to foil the rise of an independent Kurdish nation that could claim parts of Turkey.

"It is a reality that Turkey does not have the capability to prevent a war on its own," he said. "Our choice is between bad and worse."

The military's backing is expected to break a political deadlock that threatens to force the Pentagon to revise its war plans, delaying a war in Iraq. It was the clearest sign yet that a rejection by Parliament on Saturday was not the final answer to the Pentagon's request to use Turkey as a launch pad to attack Iraq.

"If we don't participate we're going to see the same harm and won't have a say in a post-Saddam Iraq," said Ozkok, adding that Turkey may as well be compensated with a $30 billion aid package the United States is dangling in exchange for the use of Turkish bases.

His rare public remarks came a day after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that his embattled government would again press Parliament to approve hosting as many as 62,000 U.S. combat troops.

But the ruling Justice and Development Party is politically weakened and divided over approving a U.S. deployment. Senior party officials say any plan to resubmit a motion could take a week or longer.

The party is waiting for Erdogan to become prime minister, provided he wins a Sunday special election. This would enable him form a new government that will support a U.S. deployment. Turkish legislators also want to see if the U.N. Security Council votes to support a war—a condition many say they need to in order to give the go-ahead.

But it's unclear how long the Bush administration, which has been pressing Turkey for weeks for a decision, is prepared to wait. The Pentagon is weighing whether to redeploy a flotilla of U.S. ships carrying equipment that is waiting off the Turkish coast, possibly to Kuwait.

The war is unpopular with most Turks, who fear it will deepen their economic crisis. And for months, Turkey's generals added to political uncertainty by their silence on whether to play a role in Iraq. The military, traditionally the guardian of Turkey's secularism, is wary of the ruling party's Islamic roots and popular appeal.

Many Justice Party legislators are likewise suspicious of the military, which has led three coups and helped topple the nation's first Islamic government in 1997.

But the parliamentary rejection stunned the generals. Turkey's stock market crumbled and Iraqi Kurds taunted Turkey with demonstrations and burning of the Turkish flag. The generals saw that as a sign that the Kurds could become more powerful if Turkey stayed out of the war, say analysts.

The rejection also set back plans for Turkey's military to send as many as 40,000 troops into northern Iraq and play a supervisory role in disarming Kurds after a war.

"The military changed their position because they miscalculated," said Huseiyn Bagci, a well-known political analyst in Ankara. "And now they have to correct it in the interests of Turkey's security."


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