-- The role that Turkey could -- or should -- play in Operation Iraqi Freedom has been the subject of much debate in both Turkey and the United States. Unfortunately, in the course of the debate, some pessimists have even called into question the relevance of the strategic partnership between our countries.
Just as the fate of Saddam Hussein is critical to U.S. national security, the fate of northern Iraq is critical to Turkish national security. Turkey and the United States share concerns about the impact of the Iraqi conflict on the activities of terrorist organizations, about the humanitarian crisis caused by Hussein's policies and about the long-term political and economic stability of the region.
As a global leader, the United States must address these issues. As a regional leader, Turkey must address them also as it contends with the conflict just across its border. While this fact, and Turkey's legitimate need to respond accordingly, should be obvious, some have attributed a hidden agenda to Turkey's involvement in the conflict.
For decades Turkey and the United States have cooperated closely on many issues. This has been possible not only because we have similar goals and priorities but also because we have been able to transcend differences when faced by common threats and risks. This resilience in our partnership has allowed our alliance to endure, and it will enable us to prove the critics wrong.
But why should Turkey have concerns about the military operation in Iraq in the first place? Why the hesitancy in abandoning diplomatic efforts for military action, a hesitancy displayed by Turkey's democratic parliament?
Because we have lived through similar experiences before. Although we supported the Persian Gulf War, it was a devastating event for Turkey and its people. It precipitated an economic crisis in our country from which we have only recently begun to recover. A half-million refugees poured across our borders in need of humanitarian relief. Acts of terrorism perpetrated by separatist elements that entered Turkey after the war claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives.
Despite these severe hardships, Turkish support for both U.S. and U.N. efforts to confront and disarm the Iraqi regime after the 1991 war were considerable and comprehensive. To its own detriment, Turkey meticulously honored the U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. Turkey allowed Incirlik Air Base to be used for refugee assistance in Operation Provide Comfort, and later for airborne enforcement of one of Iraq's two no-fly zones in Operation Northern Watch. These activities protected the Kurdish factions in northern Iraq from the wrath of Baghdad and enabled the ethnic groups in that region to experiment with democracy and to achieve a degree of freedom and prosperity.
Our experience over the past decade with regard to Iraq is but a microcosm of the collaborative efforts Turkey and the United States have undertaken throughout our long partnership. Our cooperation is evident in many vital domains, in particular in the war on terrorism, and also in common efforts to bring stability and security to the Balkans, to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Turkey has for years been an understanding friend of America. Indeed, Turkey was one of the first countries to stand up in support of the United States after the tragic attacks of 9/11. Turks had no qualms about sending their sons and daughters to Afghanistan to fight a common enemy in defense of freedom and to lead the international peacekeeping effort there over the past eight months. The Turkish people have never shied away from joining forces with the United States in the face of a threat, whether in Korea, Somalia, Bosnia or even East Timor.
The United States in return has been a steady strategic partner for Turkey. Successive U.S. administrations have supported Turkey through economic and security challenges and in Turkey's own fight against terrorism.
Underlying the enduring partnership between our countries has been our embrace of democratic principles, for which our troops have fought and died together in the past. As the leader of the governing party and now prime minister, my role has been to try to reconcile this respect for democracy and the understandable sensitivities of Turkish public opinion with our desire to support the United States and safeguard our national security interests.
After much deliberation and with 94 percent of the Turkish public opposed to a new war against Iraq, my government was able to secure approval for the use of Turkish airspace by allied forces entering Iraq.
As for Turkey's own role in the Iraqi conflict, the concerns we share with the United States about terrorism, refugees and long-term regional stability have shaped our approach. First, we are securing our border against a new incursion of terrorist elements. Second, we are preparing to respond to a possible refugee crisis in a way that permits effective delivery of humanitarian aid inside Iraq with minimal impact on other populations. And third, we are encouraging, as we have for many years, the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity and the establishment of a framework whereby all Iraqis can share in the natural wealth of that country.
In all of these efforts, my government is committed to cooperating with the United States and other coalition members. In confronting common challenges, we share the same strategic vision -- not just on Iraq, but on many issues.
The writer is prime minister of Turkey.