ISTANBUL, Turkey — The Turkish government has asked its NATO allies to send air units to bases near the Turkish border with Iraq, opening the way for a foreign military buildup on a potential second front against Baghdad if the Persian Gulf crisis turns to war.
"There is some communication between the Turkish military and NATO military on this subject, and these contacts continue," said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Murat Sungar. "There has been no decision by NATO yet."
The Turkish request involves air units from the United States, Belgium, Italy and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. If the units are put in place, Iraq would perceive that any attack on Turkey would be an attack on NATO, a Turkish official said.
"The concept is not the force in itself," a senior Turkish official said. "It is not offensive. It shows NATO solidarity. The main idea is to deter potential aggression."
Turkish President Turgut Ozal has publicly ruled out a Turkish second front against Iraq. But the request for NATO planes sent a message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that his interview broadcast on Turkish television Wednesday, in which he appealed for compromise, was falling on deaf ears.
Turkey has taken a strong position against Iraq in the gulf crisis, cutting Iraq's oil pipelines, imposing a strict air embargo and deploying extra troops along the Iraqi border, tying down nearly 10 Iraqi divisions. Parliament voted war powers to the government in September to allow the Cabinet to accept new foreign troops in Turkey or to deploy Turkish troops abroad.
Inviting foreign warplanes could either be preparation for attack or merely a ploy to keep Hussein guessing, but Turkish officials said the proposal is sure to unleash a storm of domestic protest.
Two Cabinet ministers and the chief of the Turkish general staff have resigned since August, partly as a result of rifts with President Ozal and his single-handed conduct of a staunchly pro-American policy in the gulf crisis.
The senior Turkish official said most of any NATO air units sent would be based at the big NATO base at Incirlik, where a squadron of U.S. F-15 fighters arrived unexpectedly earlier this week. Up to 48 U.S. combat planes are based at Incirlik under a longstanding U.S.-Turkish military agreement that provides for use of the base for training and defensive purposes only.
"The configuration of the new force is still under discussion in Brussels, but my assumption is that it will mainly be air support," said a senior NATO diplomat. He dismissed Turkish newspaper reports that NATO ground units would be brought into Turkey as well.