Concerned about public opinion, Turkish politicians are waffling on earlier expressions of support for U.S. war plans against Iraq, dimming prospects for opening a northern front against President Saddam Hussein, according to diplomats and analysts.
More than six months after the United States approached Turkey for permission to examine military bases here for possible use against Iraq, they said, a 150-person U.S. military survey team remains in Germany, waiting to be waved in. Similarly, the government has not yet decided on a U.S. request to station as many as 80,000 combat troops in Turkey as part of the regional buildup for a possible war.
The delays have confounded diplomats and U.S. officials long accustomed to working smoothly with Turkey, a NATO member and a strategic ally that lies just north of Iraq. The stakes are particularly high, they said, because of the need to secure rich Iraqi oil fields near the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, 100 and 150 miles, respectively, south of the 250-mile border between Turkey and Iraq.
"We gave them dates we needed an answer by. The dates came; the answers didn't come," said one diplomat, referring to the Turkish leadership. "We've held the door open for them, asking what it would take for them to walk through. The door's getting harder and harder to hold open."
U.S. officials have reported strong cooperation from the Turkish general staff, which normally steers defense and security policy through the powerful National Security Council, where it has a decisive voice. But on Iraq, the generals so far have deferred to the recently elected Justice and Development Party, and diplomats and observers have blamed the delays on the party.
The Justice and Development Party is rooted in an Islamic movement whose government was forced out by the military in 1997, but it has been eager to display willingness to cooperate with the military and Turkey's traditional allies. After earlier expressions of friendship and support, however, the new government has made steadily more confusing public statements about cooperating with a U.S. move against Iraq.
For instance, party chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to swiftly disavow suggestions made Sunday by Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis that Turkey has claims on Kirkuk and Mosul. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, meanwhile, has embarked on a tour of Arab nations in what he describes as Turkey's quest for a peaceful solution to the Iraq problem, while the U.S. requests for military cooperation stand unanswered.
Murat Mercan, the party's deputy chairman, said leaders elected on a populist platform are deferring to public opinion in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation of 67 million people. One poll last week found that more than 80 percent of respondents opposed a war on their country's border.
"It is difficult for us," Mercan said. "Any government is aware of public opinion, and that public opinion is very negative toward a war in Iraq."
Under Turkey's constitution, the parliament must approve hosting of foreign troops on Turkish soil. Mercan said the ruling party would convene parliament only after Jan. 27, when the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to receive the report of weapons inspectors scouring Iraq for the evidence of weapons of mass destruction that President Bush said would justify an invasion. The delay underscores Turkey's public insistence on linking permission to use its bases with a Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing force against Hussein.
"That's too late for [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D.] Wolfowitz and that's too late for everybody who's planning for a northern front," said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Wolfowitz, one of the Bush administration's main planners for a war against Iraq, visited Ankara last month to urge the new government to take prompt action. Wolfowitz departed the capital announcing, "Turkish support is assured."
The timing is key, because after the site surveys, expected to require a couple of weeks, engineers would need several more weeks to build quarters and extend runways needed to stage infantry and armor for a thrust into northern Iraq. Western diplomats were uncertain whether late January would be too late, saying senior officials in Washington would have to decide whether and when Turkish cooperation became too ambiguous to count on.
But they expressed exasperation that the ruling party had declined to prepare the Turkish public to accept a "yes" vote on Turkish cooperation with U.S. plans. Observers say the party, with almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament, likely has the discipline to produce such a vote.
Despite the general expressions of support Erdogan offered to Bush during a visit to the White House last month, he has joined other leaders in articulating a fervent desire to avoid war. "One of the dismaying things is that the government, from Erdogan to Gul on down, has been emphasizing the negative all the time," the diplomat said.
Much of the Turks' apprehension centers on economic fallout expected from the war. Turkey's trade with Iraq crashed from $2.5 billion to $122 million following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, ushering in a decade of financial instability that culminated in 2000 with a crisis in which the currency collapsed and unemployment skyrocketed.
With recovery still fragile, U.S. officials have formulated an ambitious aid plan intended to reassure markets and Turkish public opinion. The plan, which would cost the Treasury about $4 billion, would make as much as $14 billion available to Turkey through low-interest loans that could be drawn as needed if the conflict scared away tourism and investment. The total value approaches a $16 billion International Monetary Fund recovery package, a record amount when it was extended two years ago.
"They're putting out a worst-case scenario which is all gloom and doom, within the context of this marketplace idea of how much can we squeeze out of this by whingeing and whining," another diplomat complained.
Turkey further irked the Bush administration this week by dispatching a trade mission to Baghdad. Mercan said the delegation chief would deliver a warning to Hussein. But Aliriza said the trade mission nevertheless could undermine congressional support for the aid package.
The package is implicitly linked to timely Turkish permission to use bases near the border. The United States has also asked Turkey for permission to move armor and materiel through two seaports and to base warplanes on at least two airfields besides Incirlik, from which U.S. and British planes enforce a "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq.
"How are we going to get what we consider a huge package through Congress if there's this position that Turkey is giving us half-hearted support?" one official said.
One Turkish observer noted that the bases themselves can be seen as aid. Turkish contractors could expect a share of the estimated $200 million to $300 million the Defense Department estimates would be spent readying them for U.S. troops. Provisioning the forces might be worth another $500 million.
Diplomats added that by cooperating with the United States, Turkey would help shorten the war and enjoy the fruits of trading with a friendly Iraq freed from international sanctions. But strategic interest is the overwhelming reason Turkey should help open a northern front, diplomats emphasized.
Turkey's primary fear is that war would end in Iraq's partition, with Kurds creating an independent state on Turkey's border. Turkey recently fought a 15-year civil war against its own Kurdish guerrillas seeking independence and has threatened to send troops into Iraq to prevent Iraqi Kurds from creating an unwelcome precedent.
To address those fears, U.S. officials have shared detailed war plans with Turkish generals and promised that only American troops would secure Mosul and Kirkuk. And administration officials have assured Turkey that neither of the organizations that now administer autonomous sections of northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, would play a role as U.S. surrogates as the Northern Alliance did in Afghanistan.