After months of hesitation, Turkey announced today that a 150-person U.S. military team will be allowed into the country to inspect Turkish bases where the United States has asked to station the 80,000 combat troops who would open a northern front in a war against Iraq.
The long-delayed site survey, which is expected to begin as soon as Monday and last 10 days, is the first step toward bringing U.S. forces to Iraq's northern frontier, as desired by the Bush administration. Turkey, which borders Iraq for 250 miles, is a longtime U.S. strategic ally and fellow NATO member, but it has resisted coming to a decision on whether to host American forces during an Iraq campaign.
The decision rests with the newly elected Turkish parliament. Public opinion in this economically fragile, Muslim country of 67 million is overwhelmingly against a war on its border.
Even the low-profile site survey -- U.S. experts will assess 10 Turkish military airports and two to three seaports, according to a Turkish official -- required months of negotiations between U.S. and Turkish officials. In recent weeks the discussions were slowed by Turkish worries that press coverage of the U.S. military at work would strike the public as a drumbeat to war, according to participants.
U.S. officials warned that the delays were endangering the opening of a northern front, which would secure Iraqi oilfields, control the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and draw the Iraqi military away from the west and south.
After the survey, they pointed out, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private contractors would need several weeks to pour the concrete and build the structures deemed necessary by the survey team. Diplomats said it was uncertain whether the Pentagon would be willing to spend as much as $300 million for that work without first securing at least private assurances that Turkey would accept the troops for whom the preparations were being made.
"It is significant, of course, because it's a start," said Ilnur Cevik, editor of the Turkish Daily News. "But I hope we are not too late. The American troops are already being placed in their destinations, and we don't even have our places built yet."
The approval was announced in separate statements from the head of Turkey's elected government, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, and the military's general staff. Both have been skeptical of a U.S. military campaign in Iraq, which Turks fear will damage their fragile economic recovery and embolden nationalist sentiments among Kurds, 12 million of whom live in Turkey.
"A war in the region endangers Turkey's national interests in the region," Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff, said at a public reception Wednesday. "I have not heard from anyone in Turkey the idea, 'Let's also go to war with Iraq.' "
But Turkey's military has joined the United States in pressuring the country's elected representatives for a prompt decision on whether the country will host U.S. troops. "The worst decision is better than indecisiveness," said Yasar Buyukanit, the deputy chief of staff.
Cevik said his newspaper will publish assurances in Saturday's edition quoting sources close to the prime minister that U.S. officials will get their cooperation. But other members of the ruling Justice and Development Party, which controls almost two-thirds of parliament, have said no vote will be called before Jan. 27, when U.N. weapons inspectors looking for banned weapons in Iraq are due to report to the Security Council.
Turkish officials have said a new Security Council resolution on attacking Iraq would be a precondition for U.S. use of Turkish bases.
Observers said a flurry of news stories this week highlighting American exasperation with Turkey's delays lit a fire under the ruling party. The reports also brought a public assurance today from U.S. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson that "there is no crisis in our relationship."
"Whatever the issues are that we are discussing, we'll find a good solution, a good mutual solution," Pearson told the Ankara Chamber of Industry.
But an analyst in Washington said U.S. decision-makers are leaning heavily on Turkey. Ankara's ambassador to the United States was summoned to the State Department, White House and Defense Department this week "and read the riot act," said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The fact that the Turks did not find a formula about the site survey until today is a big disappointment," Aliriza said. "They're giving the appearance of being totally uncoordinated."