BRUSSELS, DEC. 28 -- Germany is likely to agree early in January to Turkey's request that it join a NATO multinational rapid deployment force near the Turkish-Iraqi border, potentially bringing the German military into the Persian Gulf conflict, NATO and German sources said.
The action, if approved, would be the first significant deployment of military forces by the government in Bonn outside the country since West Germany joined NATO in the mid-1950s.
German, Belgian and Italian military officers were in Ankara today to discuss the Turkish request for 42 warplanes from the Allied Command Europe's Mobile Force. Turkish President Turgut Ozal wants the NATO warplanes and about 500 troops as a deterrent against an Iraqi attack. Turkey is the only NATO nation that shares a border with Iraq.
The NATO force requested by Turkey would be based at Erhac air base, about 300 miles from the Iraqi border, and under a NATO plan developed decades ago would consist of 18 fighter planes each from Germany and Belgium and six from Italy. If Bonn approves the Turkish request, Germany would send 18 Alpha Jet ground attack aircraft and supporting technicians to Turkey, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
Germany has thus far declined to send troops to the gulf, citing what Chancellor Helmut Kohl calls a constitutional ban on the German military getting involved in conflicts outside NATO territory. Constitutional scholars differ on the extent to which German law limits its military, but there is no question about German participation in NATO operations.
Turkey's request -- which follows a NATO commitment to defend Turkey if it is attacked by Iraq -- has sparked a row in German politics. The opposition Social Democrats demanded that the Bonn government reject the Turkish request, arguing that "sending a NATO rapid deployment force is a way of preparing for war." A statement by two leading party members, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul and Hermann Scheer, said the party "is firmly against the government letting Germany get dragged into a war this way."
But a source at Bonn's Foreign Ministry said tonight that "it will obviously be very difficult for the government to turn down this request. Turkey is NATO territory. The purpose of this force is to operate as a deterrent."
Since last summer, Kohl has said that although he would not send troops to the gulf, he would seek to change the constitution to allow Germany to join future international military efforts. With opinion polls showing an overwhelming majority opposed to any German military role in the gulf conflict, Kohl appeared to be trying to delay any potential political rift until after his reelection, which was Dec. 2, and the start of his new term in mid-January.
But now the Turkish request has revived the emotional debate over the future role of the military in the united Germany. The Social Democrats, who suffered their worst defeat in decades earlier this month, are searching for a new issue on which to rebuild their support and polls indicate strong public dismay over any German involvement in armed conflict outside of Europe.
"It's remarkable to see the Germans wringing their hands over a couple of dozen planes while American society is completely disrupted," a NATO official said. "But the domestic debate there shows the deep revulsion in modern Germany against any use of force."
Since the end of World War II, Bonn's overseas deployments have been sharply limited. West Germany sent border police as part of international peace-keeping forces, most recently in Namibia, and commandos were sent to Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1977 to storm a Lufthansa airliner that had been hijacked by terrorists.
The Social Democrats today asked Kohl to call a special session of parliament before Jan. 15 to discuss the opposition party's call for a European initiative for talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Kohl's Christian Democratic party has remained firmly loyal to the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam, rejecting proposals for separate European talks with Iraq. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a leader of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Kohl's coalition, is to meet Saturday with the Algerian foreign minister to discuss efforts for an Arab solution to the gulf crisis.
Western diplomats said that while the United States has not publicly pushed Germany toward sending warplanes to Turkey, officials have privately urged the Kohl government to agree to aid Turkey or risk exacerbating the sharp congressional criticism of Bonn's limited role in the gulf coalition.
"It's a question of solidarity," a U.S. official said. "Everyone realizes Germany has entered a phase of looking inward and concentrating on the effects of its unification. But there is also an impatience with the richest country in Europe staying so far in the background in this crisis."
Turkish officials have been quoted in the Turkish press this week as saying that if the NATO force is not approved, Ozal is inclined to refuse permission for U.S. forces to use its facilities in southern Turkey in a war with Iraq.
Opposition parties in Ankara also criticized the Turkish request and Ozal's staunchly anti-Iraq position. Ozal's main conservative opponent, Suleyman Demirel, told reporters that the request for NATO assistance was a "scandal."
Turkey has not sent troops to the gulf, but dealt a severe blow to the Iraqi economy by shutting off two Iraqi oil pipelines that pass through Turkey.