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Turkey agrees to open its airspace to U.S. warplanes

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—The Turkish government finally agreed to open its airspace to U.S. warplanes Friday, after a day of back-and-forth negotiations cleared up a few final obstacles.

The protracted negotiations, however, failed to resolve disagreement over Turkey's wish to send its troops into northern Iraq. There were reports late Friday that Turkey had moved 1,000 troops into Iraq to strengthen its presence there and was preparing to send more. U.S. officials were unable to confirm the reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeatedly opposed any significant deployment of Turkish troops into Iraq.

"At the moment, we don't see a need for any Turkish incursions into northern Iraq," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters Friday afternoon in Washington.

U.S. officials are concerned that the Turkish military, which for 12 years has operated in a small area of northern Iraq, would antagonize the Kurdish population and could wind up in friendly-fire conflict with coalition forces.

Turkish airspace unexpectedly remained closed to U.S. warplanes on Friday after Thursday's parliamentary approval to permit flyovers snagged on the government's insistence on the right to send troops into northern Iraq to protect its interests.

U.S. officials, frustrated and furious, also balked when Turkey demanded to know details about each flight.

At the end of the day, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed course after a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Colin Powell and agreed to open the airspace without imposing further conditions but also not agreeing to keep Turkish troops from crossing into Iraq.

Although U.S. forces intensely bombed Iraq on Friday, apparently without using Turkish airspace, the ability to traverse that territory with men and equipment for an expected airborne assault on northern Iraq could be critical.

Even with final resolution of the overflight dispute, some American officials say, the decades-long close relationship between Washington and Ankara has been badly damaged by the delay and the Turkish parliament's last-minute refusal to permit the stationing of U.S. troops in the country to open a northern front against Iraq.

U.S. officials were fuming privately that negotiations that began in the fall were still continuing—even after the war has started.

Since November the United States has been pressing for access, originally envisioning 62,000 soldiers moving south through Turkey. Negotiations between the United States and Turkey dragged on. A March 1 parliamentary vote for to allow U.S. troops basing rights and ground movements failed by four votes, forfeiting a U.S. offer of $6 billion in grants and loans that could total around $25 billion.

Turkish leaders have said a vote on further cooperation has been postponed indefinitely.

Turkey has also been angling for a bigger role in northern Iraq, which the United States is resisting.

American officials have told their Turkish counterparts that only after a resolution of the airspace issue should they discuss the deployment of Turkish troops. "Let's deal with the overflight issue and deal with the need for making sure that there is not a disturbance along the Turkish-Iraq border," Powell told reporters.

The roadblock appeared to originate with Turkey's powerful military, which also has been insisting that the United States provide Ankara with notification of every warplane transiting Turkey's airspace.

"They're trying to kill it by paperwork," said another U.S. official.

Talks in Ankara last week with U.S. officials and Iraqi opposition leaders over a post-Saddam Iraq also did not go well, this official said.

The Turks want to secure its 220-mile border to prevent a flood of refugees, which happened in 1991 after the first Gulf War, and to keep Kurdish militants from entering the country.

Powell told reporters that the United States will consider working with Turkey, its NATO ally, to ease any refugee crisis. "We are talking with the Turkish authorities to see whether or not there is some planning we should do with respect to any humanitarian needs that might arise along the border," he said.


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