ANKARA, TURKEY, JAN. 20 -- Waves of U.S. warplanes took off again today from the big NATO airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey, thrusting the strategically located facility into a more important role in the air war against Iraq and raising the political risks for Turkish President Turgut Ozal.
Today's attack from Turkey -- totaling, according to varied reports, more than 50 U.S. fighter-bombers -- was the largest since Thursday, when the National Assembly voted approval of war powers allowing the United States virtually free use of the base.
Whatever the initial intentions of allied war planners in using Incirlik, it may have become even more important because of its proximity to northern Iraq, where portions of Iraq's air force are reported to have fled after the first U.S. attacks elsewhere in the country.
This morning, Turkey's main state-run television network abruptly stopped translating the words accompanying its live broadcast of Cable News Network showing American warplanes taking off from Incirlik against targets in Iraq.
No official explanation was provided for the mid-sentence break in the Turkish translation. But the incident illustrated growing government sensitivity about publicizing the raids.
The raids have become even more sensitive here in the wake of Iraq's missile attacks on Israel, which have raised fears that Turkey could also be attacked.
Ozal's policy of active participation in the American-led conflict against Iraq, is rejected not only by opposition political parties but also by the overwhelming majority of the press and the military and foreign policy establishment.
The government appears to be on the defensive. Only days after the opposition's warnings that American raids could justify Iraqi reprisals, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed on Baghdad radio to "hit Turkish refineries and air bases," according to the mass circulation daily Sabah today.
A key adviser to Ozal, who pressed a reluctant assembly into granting the government war powers, acknowledged that the "situation is getting more complicated."
Ozal and the government have yet to tell Turks directly what everyone here nevertheless knows: that the United States is actively using Incirlik and possibly other Turkish bases closer to Iraq.
Incirlik is not the only taboo on state-run television. No pictures have been shown of the exodus of Turks fearing attack by chemical weapons. U.N. officials in Geneva estimate that 3 million have fled from much of southeast Turkey, even from areas hundreds of miles from the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish minority in the southeast, mindful of gas attacks against Iraqi Kurdish civilians in 1988, began leaving weeks before hostilities began.
In recent days, residents of Adana, where Incirlik is situated, have joined the exodus -- apparently not reassured by the recent arrival of U.S.-built Patriot anti-missile defense systems to protect the base.
The Patriots' presence actually appeared to have strengthened rumors that Iraqi mobile missile launchers will target Incirlik.
Ozal appears unperturbed by the near across-the-board hostility to his policy shown in public opinion polls.
He repeatedly has argued that only a ground attack along the 206-mile Turkish-Iraqi border would constitute war and said he doubts Iraq has any interest in taking on more enemies by opening a second front.
He persuaded NATO to send 42 Belgian, German and Italian warplanes to bases close to the Iraqi frontier to serve as a trip-wire force symbolizing NATO's pledge to defend its only member state abutting Iraq.
Ozal insists that Turkey has proved its renewed strategic value to the United States and Europe, whereas less than a year ago it wondered how to maintain ties to the West with the waning of NATO and the end of the Cold War.
Critics accuse Ozal of acting out of personal adventurism and ambition, but a close confidant recently suggested to a Western diplomat that Ozal was motivated more by fear that Turkey could not afford to sit this war out. "We want to be invited to the victory banquet," the confidant said, "not be on the menu."
Until now, a national foreign policy consensus kept Turkey clear of Middle East conflicts, invoking the slogan, "Peace at home, peace with the world," dear to Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire's mainly Arab domains after World War I.
The Ataturk-influenced military and foreign policy establishment is Western-oriented. Its members feel that shared borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria dictate caution and they fear the Arabs will not soon forgive Turkish aid to the U.S.-led coalition.
But Ozal argues that Turkey had no choice because collapse of central authority in Baghdad is inevitable, and Turkey would then face either continuous turmoil in Iraq or a coalition government of radical Shiite Moslems and Kurds out to reestablish long-promised full autonomy near Turkey's border. That, he argues, would be a bad example for Turkey's own large and restive Kurdish minority.
Ozal was careful to include in the war-powers act the right to intervene after the current conflict ends. Backed by those powers -- and a 120,000-man force along the Iraqi border -- he hopes to lend credibility to repeated warnings that Turkey will not tolerate Syrian or Iranian intervention in Iraq or the creation of an independent Kurdish state there. He has sought to rally doubters within his ruling Motherland Party by pointing to U.S. promises of vastly increased military aid and Washington's help in persuading the gulf Arabs to contribute to defraying Turkey's costs incurred by respecting the U.N. embargo against Iraq. But faced with gloomy economic indicators, Ozal may not be able to capitalize on a foreign policy victory that he hopes would resuscitate the Motherland Party's flagging fortunes in a snap early election.