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U.S. must try to plan invasion around hesitant Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey—As Washington weighs whether to abandon its war plans to use Turkish bases for a crucial northern attack on Iraq, Turkey's embattled government on Sunday appeared to reject a speedy new vote to let U.S. troops enter Turkish soil.

But it did not rule out trying to reverse a parliamentary decision that has seriously setback U.S. plans for an Iraqi invasion and threatens to fracture both Turkey's government and its relationship with the United States.

"We will take this step if the government decides it's necessary," Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, a day after Turkey's parliament narrowly rejected a measure that would have permitted thousands of U.S. troops to use Turkey as a launch pad for an assault. The rejection stunned Washington.

The Parliament will meet on Tuesday, but no vote is scheduled.

Some analysts and Turkish officials say reconsideration by the politically fragile government could take a week or longer. If this happens, the Pentagon, frustrated by weeks of delays and mixed signals from Turkish leaders, could be forced to revise its war plans and leave Turkey out of its equation, said Western diplomats.

Already, Washington is mulling a series of backup plans, including sending its troops and U.S. supply ships floating near Turkey's coast to Kuwait.

At the southern port of Iskenderun, rows of trucks laden with U.S. equipment sat idly, as armed Turkish soldiers guarded the exit.

Eyup Fatsa, the deputy head of the ruling Justice and Development Party's parliamentary group signaled on Sunday that the United States might be in for a long wait. At least three members of Turkey's cabinet have publicly said they are against trying again to get permission for the U.S. deployment.

"The proposal has been delayed to an open-ended time," he told reporters, following a party meeting to discuss whether to seek approval again. "There is no proposal for the foreseeable future."

But after his remarks, party members returned behind closed doors to continue debating the matter.

Turkey has a lot to lose by turning its back on its principal benefactor. It could be deprived of Washington's crucial backing for financial aid and European Union membership. This includes a $15 billion aid package to cushion its economy from war-related shocks.

Turkey also stands to lose influence over the shape of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and will have less power to stop the creation of an independent Kurdish nation that embraces parts of Turkey's own restive Kurdish minority.

"What you're seeing is a true political crisis for the ruling party, a true political crisis for the Turkish establishment, and a true political crisis for Turkish-American relations," said Soli Ozel, a political analyst at Istanbul's Bilgi University.


But senior Turkish officials on Sunday sought to downplay any rupture with its historic NATO ally.

"We will continue these relations with mutual friendship and mutual understanding. These (relations) shouldn't be bound to a motion," Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said.

Gul spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell Sunday night and explained to him why the parliamentary vote went against hosting U.S. troops. Gul assured Powell that discussions were still going on within the Turkish cabinet to try and authorize the deployment. A senior adviser to Gul described the discussion as positive.

Though the stakes are high, many of Turkey's influential commentators do not expect the Justice Party to resubmit a resolution to host U.S. troops before March 9—if it decides to proceed with seeking another approval.

That's when Erdogan hopes to be elected as a member of parliament from the southeastern town of Siirt, and then to be swiftly elevated to prime minister.

As party leader, the post would have normally gone to Erdogan. But Turkish secular laws prohibited him from holding elected office because he was convicted four years ago of reciting an "Islamicist" poem seen as inciting religious hatred.

The law was changed after the Justice Party was elected four months ago, freeing Erdogan to run in the election this Saturday.

Erdogan, who furiously lobbied for the U.S. deployment, was politically weakened when his party, which controlled 362 seats in the 550-member parliament, fell three short of the majority of those voting.

Ninety-nine of his own party's legislators—concerned about polls showing 90 percent of Turks as against war and unhappy with the U.S. economic aid package—rejected the resolution.

If Turkey's parliament forces U.S. troops to be relocated to Kuwait, it would likely take an extra week to sail through the Suez Canal, around the Arabian Peninsula and then into the Persian Gulf. That means the troops lose preparation time and if most forces must drive north from Kuwait, Saddam gains an advantage.

The Turkish vote also presents war planners with at least three choices: wait for the Turks to vote again and risk the possibility of a second rejection and further delay. Use the 82nd Airborne or other quick-reaction troops to secure airfields in Kurdish-held northern Iraq that would allow the U.S. to bring in heavy mechanized forces by air from Europe and elsewhere. Or reroute forces to Kuwait.

But each carries its own drawbacks and risks. A second Turkish rejection would delay eventual redeployment of U.S. forces to Kuwait by at least two to four weeks. Bringing in heavy forces by air to Kurdish-held northern Iraq would be a monumental task requiring weeks, if not months, and would tie up cargo jets that are already committed to the build-up in Kuwait.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior officials say that U.S. forces are now ready to attack if ordered. But troops in a number of scattered units say privately that much of the equipment they need is still aboard transport ships and that it could be several more weeks before they are ready to fight.

An additional division, the Army's 101st Airborne Division, is about one-third of the way through its deployment of 17,000 soldiers to Kuwait. Military officials say they expect the rest of the unit to arrive within the next seven to 10 days.

But much of the division's helicopters and other heavy equipment is also still on its way to Kuwait aboard ships and is not expected to arrive for at least another two weeks. Once that equipment, including 270 attack and transport helicopters, is offloaded from ships, it could take another seven to 10 days before the unit is ready for combat, said one military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Senior U.S. defense officials have maintained for months that an allied attack could begin with a "rolling start" even before all U.S. ground forces are fully deployed for battle. Under that scenario, other ground forces could join the war as they arrive in Kuwait or elsewhere.

Even though the plan runs counter to conventional U.S. military doctrine, which calls for an advantage of at least three-to-one in a ground attack, many officers believe the imbalance would be offset by superior technology, tactics and intelligence data. Plus, U.S. troops are far-better trained and more eager to fight, they say, while Iraqi weapons are obsolete, and many of their soldiers are reportedly suffering from low morale.

"Given what we know about them," said one U.S. military officer, who also asked not to be named. "We're very comfortable with that idea."


(Peter Smolowitz in Qatar and Drew Brown Kuwait City also contributed to this report.)


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