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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S. Drops Its Bid to Base Troops in Turkey

Washington warns Ankara not to send its soldiers into northern Iraq. Pentagon moves some vessels from the Mediterranean Sea.

March 15, 2003|Richard Boudreaux and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

ANKARA, Turkey — The Bush administration told Turkish leaders Friday that it had all but given up on their country as a base from which to assault Iraq, ending months of intense lobbying for the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops to a northern front against Saddam Hussein, a senior U.S. official said.

Instead, the official said, the administration is now trying to dissuade Turkey from plans to send its own army into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, warning that such an incursion could lead to "a war within a war" and further damage Turkey's relations with the United States.

The shift in the administration's position came nearly two weeks after Turkey's parliament refused to authorize a deployment of 62,000 American troops and after its top political leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, balked at a backup proposal to open Turkish airspace to U.S. missiles and warplanes for a bombing campaign in Iraq.

In response, the Pentagon on Friday sent some of the 12 warships that were in Mediterranean waters near Turkey to the Red Sea, where they can fire through Saudi Arabian airspace instead. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the repositioning Thursday night, Pentagon officials said.

Turkish cooperation was essential to a Pentagon plan to attack Iraq with massive ground forces from the north as well as the south, which U.S. officials said could achieve a swifter victory with fewer allied casualties.

But with Turkey's mostly Muslim populace strongly against a war and the country's politics in turmoil, U.S. officials ran out of hope for a quick reversal of parliament's surprise decision March 1.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a congressional hearing Friday that a $15-billion aid package offered to Turkey in return for backing a U.S. troop deployment was no longer on the table.

The senior U.S. official said presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was dispatched to Turkey with the same message Friday after President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney phoned Erdogan this week to urge quick parliamentary approval of overflight rights.

The official, who requested anonymity, said Turkey would not get the aid if it eventually allowed overflights without accepting a U.S. troop deployment.

Erdogan, who became prime minister Friday in a change of government, pleaded for time to organize his Cabinet and win a parliamentary vote of confidence next week before taking up any form of help in a war, Turkish sources said.

Hurriyet, a Turkish newspaper, characterized his conversation with Cheney on Thursday as "tense."

"Given the record of the past few weeks, we are not counting on Turkey's help anymore," the official said late Friday, briefing reporters on the envoy's three hours of talks with top Turkish diplomats and military commanders in Ankara, the capital.

"If Turkish help is forthcoming eventually, it would be appreciated," the official said. "But plans have to move forward with the assumption that what we wanted is not going to happen."

Since Turkey rejected the Pentagon's initial request to base ground troops on its soil, the United States has been developing contingency plans for deploying a smaller, more lightly armed force into northern Iraq.

The first of the U.S. ships and submarines that had been near the Turkish coast in the Mediterranean passed through the Suez Canal on Friday, and one U.S. defense source said the rest were to follow soon.

The vessels are considered critical for the opening hours of combat. They fire Tomahawk missiles, satellite-guided explosives that can strike targets deep inside Iraq. The 18-foot missiles carry 1,000-pound explosives to their targets, visible to the naked eye as they skim as close as 100 feet from the ground.

The shifting of the vessels could signal the transfer of further American provisions of war. Much of the American military materiel remained positioned for use on a northern front in or near Turkey. Cargo vessels bearing the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Army's 4th Infantry Division remained in the Mediterranean, as did two aircraft carriers.

The administration's appeal to keep Turkish soldiers out of northern Iraq came after Turkey began massing troops and equipment along the border.

Washington would have allowed 40,000 Turkish troops to follow American forces across the border in a coordinated operation and to protect Turkish interests in northern Iraq. But U.S. officials say those plans are now void because parliament rejected the U.S. request.

Turkish leaders have said their troops would have several missions in Iraq. They would set up camps for Iraqi refugees on Iraq's side of the border, trying to keep them out of Turkey; protect Iraq's small Turkmen minority, who share a common ancestry with Turkish people; disarm ethnic Kurdish separatists from Turkey who have taken refuge in northern Iraq; and counter any effort by the region's Iraqi Kurds to declare independence.

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