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Turkey again delays vote, putting U.S. war plans on hold

ANKARA, Turkey—Political gridlock is delaying Turkey's decision to host 62,000 American troops, preventing the United States from filling the last major gap in its preparations for a possible invasion of Iraq.

On Thursday, Turkey's parliament again postponed a vote to permit the American deployment after Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, found it hard to persuade those who oppose war in Iraq to support the accord.

The delay has put U.S. war plans at the mercy of Turkey's unpredictable domestic politics. A decision had been expected a week ago.

American troops are stranded in ships in the Mediterranean Sea, unable to disembark and awaiting possible orders to head south to Kuwait instead, if Turkey finally turns them away. U.S. strategists say attacking Iraq from the north, as well as the south, would shorten the war and reduce casualties.

"Every day they delay affects our ability to deploy. The ideal mixes of forces we'd like also slips a day. Under these conditions, we can't carry out the buildup as well as we'd like," said Anthony Cordesman, a specialist on Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I'm voting no," said Emin Sirin, a Justice party member of parliament. "I'm not satisfied with the terms of the agreement. The people are poor, and we have a history of terror . . . and we don't see much appreciation of this from the U.S."

Across Turkey's border, there could be more delays. Kurdish officials are considering sending a delegation to Ankara, the Turkish capital, to try to persuade Turkish and American officials to shelve a military plan that would send tens of thousands of Turkish troops into Kurd-controlled northern Iraq.

If the Turkish troops arrive, Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said the Kurds might reconsider cooperating with the Pentagon's plan to use their enclave to attack Baghdad.

It's widely expected that the Turkish parliament eventually will approve the accord, paving the way for U.S. troops to enter Turkey—if only as a vote of confidence for the Justice Party.

"Not many will object, not because they agree with legitimacy of war or the terms of the economic package, but in order to support the government," said Sirin, the Justice Party politician.

It remains to be seen how long the United States is prepared to wait for a decision. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Prime Minister Abdullah Gul on Tuesday to stress the importance of a speedy decision by the parliament.

Hours before the decision to postpone the vote Thursday, Turkish and U.S. officials sealed a military cooperation deal. Turkey plans to send as many as 40,000 troops into a 12-mile buffer zone in northern Iraq to block refugee flows into Turkey and prevent the Kurds from creating an independent state.

Deciding whether to host American troops is a test for the fledgling Justice party, which is worried about angering Turkish voters, who overwhelmingly oppose war in Iraq over fears that it could deepen their economic crisis and breed more violence in Turkey.

At the same time, the party's top leaders know Turkey could suffer if it turns down the United States. Washington has been a major supporter of financial aid for Turkey and its application to join the European Union.

"The decision on Iraq is one that no one wants to take," said a Western diplomat who has nearly two decades of experience analyzing Turkish affairs and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This is the biggest challenge that the predominantly Islamist Justice party has faced since it was elected in November after Turkish voters—frustrated by the crumbling economy—drummed out the secular government.

Unlike previous Turkish governments, in which the military and bureaucratic elite called the shots, this one is sensitive to public opinion.

"Tayyip Erdogan is not in full control of the party," said Huseiyn Bagci, a political expert at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "The party is a collection of different political views, and this is their biggest dilemma."

Erdogan, who once espoused hard-line Islamic views, promised to uphold democracy and keep Turkey secular. But he and his party are still viewed with suspicion by the governmental establishment, the civil service and the military, who together have traditionally been the guardians of Turkey's secularism.

If a war in Iraq hurts Turkey, it could give the nation's secular leaders the ammunition they need to oust the Justice party. It also could alienate the party's core Islamic voters.

"The government will be in a very difficult position," said Mehmet Ali Kislali, a political columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Radikal. "The ruling party's supporters will not easily understand why it is supporting the American `infidels' fighting against Muslims in Iraq."

And if Turkey's parliament votes no, it will alienate the world's greatest superpower and the nation's closest Western ally. Either way, the party, which was created only two years ago, could lose.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.)


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