Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said today his government might, under certain circumstances, cooperate with U.S. military forces and allow American warplanes to bomb Iraq from bases in Turkey if war is necessary to disarm President Saddam Hussein's government.
Yakis stressed that Turkey would not support war against Iraq until every peaceful means of disarming its neighbor had been exhausted. In addition, he said the Turkish government strongly believes a second U.N. Security Council resolution would be necessary before military action could begin.
The minister's statements, at a news conference outside his residence, represented Turkey's public response to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who came here today seeking a commitment for military cooperation should President Bush decide to launch a war against Iraq. Judging from what Yakis said, the response was yes, but with significant conditions.
After meeting with Wolfowitz here in the Turkish capital, Yakis said public opposition would make it difficult for his government to allow "tens of thousands" of U.S. ground troops to invade Iraq from bases in Turkey. But he left the door open to basing smaller units in Turkey and called military cooperation a "priority" for Turkey if war becomes necessary.
"We believe there should not be left any stone unturned before resorting to military force," Yakis told reporters. "But if it comes to that, of course we will cooperate with the United States."
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement late tonight clarifying that Yakis's remarks were based on "hypothetical" cases and did not represent a final Turkish decision on U.S. access to bases on Turkish soil. The ministry's decision to clarify the comments underlined how delicate the issue is here for a government that took office only last week.
In that light, Wolfowitz declined to describe the extent to which Turkey has pledged military cooperation or the amount of U.S. aid that might be provided in return for assistance in any future war and to compensate Turkey for its economic losses caused by sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Wolfowitz left little doubt, however, that he was pleased by his meetings.
Pentagon officials consider Turkish bases important for execution of war plans that call for Special Operations and airborne forces to launch simultaneous invasions of northern, southern and western Iraq. Without bases for aircraft and troops in Turkey, invading northern Iraq and bombing targets north of Baghdad would be problematic. Other nearby bases are located in Persian Gulf states south of Iraq.
"It's important that [Hussein] see that he's surrounded by the international community, not only in the political sense, but in a real, practical, military sense," Wolfowitz said, "and Turkey has a very important role to play."
A senior U.S. official said today's talks with Turkish officials had not involved a discussion of how many U.S. troops would be involved in an invasion of northern Iraq, orhow many Turkish troops might be necessary to police refugees or guard prisoners of war along the border. He discounted reports in the Turkish press that the Bush administration wants to stage 120,000 combat troops in Turkey and has requested 35,000 Turkish troops to oversee refugees along the Iraqi frontier.
"There have been a lot of discussions in military channels, of all kinds of hypothetical possibilities," the official said. "I imagine the numbers you read in the [Turkish] press start from that."
The United States already has a substantial military presence in Turkey, centered at the Incirlik air base in the southeast. For 11 years U.S. forces have used Incirlik as the jumping-off point for patrol flights over northern Iraq. The base also has been a major hub in the past year for C-17 cargo flights to and from Afghanistan.
U.S. aircraft also are positioned at a smaller base farther east for use in search-and-rescue missions in case a plane crashes in Iraq.
In the event of a war, U.S. authorities hope not only to expand operations at Incirlik but also to use a half-dozen other Turkish bases for various aircraft, according to American officials.
One reason the Bush administration appears so insistent on getting Turkey's clear support soon is the need to send teams to assess facilities and utilities at the bases that U.S. war planners have been eyeing as likely launching pads. "We need to take a look, in detail, at their bases and roads, and to check on the availability of fuel, water, security and so on," a U.S. official said.
A Western diplomat with significant experience in Turkish military affairs said that this year, under the former government, Turkish authorities were appealing to Washington to tell them what exactly the U.S. plan was and what would be expected of them, but many details were not forthcoming. Now that the Americans are eager to lay things out, the Turkish military is working with an unfamiliar government, the diplomat said.
The diplomat also said the United States has assured Turkey on several key points:
First, that it is opposed to seeing a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which Turkish authorities have said they will not tolerate. Second, that it opposes letting the Kurds end up in control of Mosul and Kirkuk, two of northern Iraq's main cities. Third, that oil resources in Iraq will belong to the central government if Hussein's rule is destroyed, meaning the Iraqi Kurds would have no independent funding from the northern oil fields. And fourth, that it will compensate Turkey for the cost of the war, although both sides are still far apart on specifics.
A senior Turkish diplomat said Turkey lost an estimated $40 billion because of the Gulf War. The country is nervous about losing more this time. In fact, Turks argue that even the talk of war is having a negative economic impact, discouraging investment and tourism and raising oil prices.
"I can't emphasize enough how much the experience of war with Iraq the last time is alive still in our minds, especially in the south and southeast," the diplomat said.
He also stressed the newness of the government, whose top ministers were sworn in last week. It is headed by the Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam. Party leaders, however, have stressed their commitment to maintaining Turkey's tradition of secular rule and to cooperation with the military.
Since taking over, they have been occupied mainly with Turkey's quest to obtain a date for a process leading to accession into the European Union. The EU's 15 member nations will meet next week in Copenhagen, and Wolfowitz spent part of his time during a stopover in London urging European leaders to grant Turkey's request.
The new government has also expressed support for a plan advanced by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for reuniting Cyprus, the Mediterranean island that has been torn by strife and divided into Greek and Turkish enclaves since 1974. "A lot of big decisions are confronting the government and it's not easy to expect action on all of them," the Turkish diplomat said.
Graham reported from Incirlik.