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Pressure mounts on Turkey to reconsider U.S. base plan

ANKARA, Turkey—Pressure grew on the Turkish government Monday to try again to seek permission for thousands of U.S. troops to enter Turkey on their way to invading Iraq.

The politically weakened ruling Justice and Development Party remained split on whether to ask parliament to vote a second time to host American troops. Legislators rejected such a plan by three votes Saturday. The decision could force the Pentagon to revise its war plans and delay an invasion of Iraq.

The first signs that Turkey could pay a heavy price for defying the United States came Monday, as its stock market plunged more than 10 percent despite assurances from senior government officials that the country was on track with reforms required by the International Monetary Fund. The national currency, the lira, tumbled 5 percent, and the threat of higher interest rates loomed.

Turkey is emerging from its worst recession since World War II. The parliamentary rejection put at risk a potential $30 billion U.S. aid package designed to cushion any financial shock from a war in neighboring Iraq and lessen Turkey's debt.

Cabinet ministers worked late into Monday night to try to assess why parliament didn't approve the measure to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases to invade Iraq.

"A decision will be made after the evaluations end. And I don't know when the evaluation will end," Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said Monday.

Kuwait said it would accept some of the 62,000 American troops lined up to go to Turkey if Turkey would not.

"Turkey is reviewing its options for what they will or will not be able to do, and we are evaluating our options and our alternatives," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington. "No matter what course Turkey selects, if the president authorizes the use of force, no matter which route it takes, there's no doubt it will lead to a successful military outcome."

Turkey is the preferred option. A northern front could force Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to divide his forces, could shorten a war and could lessen American casualties. The Pentagon hasn't announced any plans to redirect a flotilla of U.S. ships carrying equipment that are floating off the Turkish coast.

Rejection by Turkey, a secular Muslim nation, could deal a blow to the Bush administration's argument that it has wide international backing for a war on Iraq.

Turkey also has a lot to lose. It stands to be sidelined in any plans for a postwar Iraq. It could have less clout in preventing the rise of an independent Kurdish nation that could a spark a quest for self-determination among Turkey's own restive Kurdish minority.

But perhaps the biggest issue at stake is that Ankara could be deprived of Washington's financial aid and support for Turkey's application to join the European Union.

Investors are concerned that an approaching war in Iraq and souring Turkish-American relations would shatter Turkey's frail economy, and they are counting on the financial package tied to a U.S. deployment.

"The markets are sending a signal of living with the worst-case scenario, where we have to deal with the consequences of war, but we'll not get the extra financial aid," said Ali Carkoglu, the research director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

But it's unlikely that Monday's economic slide will push the government into trying for a quick parliamentary reversal.

The Justice Party's credibility and prestige were severely weakened after Saturday's parliamentary rejection. Though it controlled a two-thirds majority of the parliament, it fell three votes short of a majority.

Justice Party officials said some dissenters were unhappy with the U.S. economic aid package, while others were angry about what they considered American pressure tactics. But most of them, they said, were simply mirroring Turkish public opinion, which overwhelmingly opposes a war in Iraq.

If the party tries and fails again to authorize the American deployment, it could lead to losing control of the government and to an economic crash, party officials fear.

Justice Party insiders say several Cabinet ministers are opposed to asking parliament for a second vote. All their signatures are needed to send any second resolution to parliament.

The party probably will wait until its leader, Tayyip Erdogan, becomes prime minister. He must first win an election to parliament Sunday.

The party also may try to seek a blessing from Turkey's powerful military generals. Their approval of the U.S. deployment could deflect any political repercussions, according to Turkish news reports.

Said Davut Oglu, the chief adviser to Prime Minister Abdullah Gul: "We need to wait until public opinion against the war cools down a bit first. The first agenda is to keep the political party united. Right now, the party wants to do damage control. This was a great shock for the governing party."


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

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