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Turkish leader softens tone on allowing U.S. troops on bases

ANKARA, Turkey—Turkish political leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday began laying groundwork for the deployment of U.S. troops in his country—taking public stances aimed a softening popular opposition to war while maneuvering behind the scenes to drum up political support.

The troops would be positioned to invade Iraq from the north, which the United States argues would shorten any potential war and reduce casualties.

Erdogan, who is poised to become Turkey's prime minister this week, has told aides and key legislators privately that he plans to ask parliament to vote a second time on whether to allow 62,000 U.S. combat troops on Turkish soil. Parliament rejected the measure March 1.

Snubbing the Bush administration, Erdogan told legislators, could be disastrous for Turkey, which stands to lose influence in a post-war Iraq and billions in U.S. economic aid. It is unclear when a second vote would take place.

Erdogan has adopted a different public stance in what appears to be an effort to soften public opposition to the deployment. After he won a parliamentary seat Sunday, he refused on Turkish television to say whether he would push for an approval.

Instead, he blamed the United States for pressuring his party into a vote on the U.S. deployment before he had enough support. Parliament rejected the measure by three votes.

In the interview he said the United States had to provide stronger guarantees that Turkey's interests will be protected in a post-war Iraq. Only then, he appeared to suggest, would he seek another vote.

"Privately, when he speaks to us, he's in favor of a Turkish intervention into Iraq with the United States," said Nevzat Yalcintas, a senior legislator of the ruling Justice and Development Party. "Publicly he says `we can't decide quickly' because there is opposition. He has to show he's not in complete favor."

Erdogan will form a new cabinet this week that will likely exclude current cabinet ministers opposed to a U.S. deployment. Turkey's powerful military is fully behind him on the deployment issue.

The public, however, overwhelmingly opposes war. Erdogan will also have to put the vote to the same parliament that rejected the deployment earlier. The body's speaker, Bulent Arinc, is opposed to hosting US troops and could sway votes.

The failure of a second vote could fracture the party and make it more difficult to govern Turkey.

"This is a tactic to assuage whoever is unhappy," said Soli Ozel, a political analyst at Istanbul's Bilgi University, referring to Erdogan's public statements. "This opening shot is to give himself some space to maneuver and some time."

Many legislators and the military are concerned about the rights of Turkmen, an ethnic Turkish minority in Iraq, in a post-war Iraq. And recent demonstrations by Kurds in Northern Iraq and burnings of the Turkish flag have inflamed Turkish fears that Kurds want an independent nation that could embrace parts of Turkey.

"We need a clear declaration of non-support for the Kurdish movement in Iraq," said Emin Sirin, a Justice Party legislator who voted against U.S. troops. "This is becoming more important than the economical assurances."

If they had these guarantees, Sirin said it would turn his—and others'—votes around.

"It would help with the public opinion and help with the parliamentary opinion," said Egemen Bagis, a parliamentarian and key Erdogan adviser. "The meetings (of Kurdish groups) in Northern Iraq and the burning of the Turkish flag have upset the Turkish mindset."


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