Turkey's influential National Security Council called on parliament today to allow the United States to station troops there for a possible war against Iraq, but made its recommendation contingent on "international legitimacy."
Turkish leaders have interpreted that phrase to mean that there must be a U.N. resolution authorizing war, and the council did not specify how fast parliament should act. As a result, the Bush administration seemed to have moved an important step forward in its quest to organize a northern front against Iraq from Turkey, but was left without the green light it has been seeking for weeks from the government in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
The security council, which includes Turkey's military leadership as well as the prime minister and other key civilian leaders, is considered the decisive voice in the country's military affairs and foreign relations. Its call on parliament to act was thus likely to please U.S. war planners. But according to the Turkish constitution, parliament must vote on any decision to host foreign troops, leaving the final word to the governing Justice and Development Party, which is facing a public that strongly opposes war.
In a convoluted two-page statement issued after an overtime meeting, the council was vague on the crucial question of timing, urging the government to call a vote "according to a calendar to be determined by monitoring developments."
U.S. officials have expressed fear that, given the political sensitivities here, the vote will come too late for the Pentagon to position the forces that could invade Iraq across its 250-mile border with Turkey. "The important thing to us is timing, timing, timing," said a U.S. official.
When an attack might come remains unclear, even in Washington. But the military encirclement of Iraq assumes Turkish cooperation: Elements of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Germany, have already received orders to deploy to Turkey as soon as they receive authorization from Ankara.
The council's public statement made no mention of the size of the force Turkey might accommodate, although negotiations between Turkish and U.S. officials have concentrated on scenarios that would put no more than 20,000 infantry on Turkish soil at any given moment. The Bush administration has also asked Turkey to accept war planes at several military bases in addition to the one at Incirlik, from which U.S. and British planes have enforced a "no-fly" zone above northern Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Analysts and officials said such details were surely discussed in the six-hour meeting, but the public statement was confined to broad recommendations. "The government will base its political decision on this recommendation," said a Turkish official.
A Turkish diplomat, asked whether the statement would satisfy U.S. calls for a clear answer from Turkey, replied: "I don't think it will frustrate them. It's the first time we specify the [wartime] article of the constitution. So it's more prone to satisfy the U.S. administration, I should say."
Another Turkish official called the statement balanced in urging on the peacemaking effort Turkey has spearheaded in recent weeks while acknowledging the time has come to prepare for "military measures required to protect fully Turkey's national interests against possible unwanted developments."
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, where the council convened, declined to comment.
The opaque references to "a calendar" apparently referred to future U.N. Security Council meetings, although Turkish officials have suggested that NATO could provide the "international legitimacy" the council requires. Turkey's foreign minister, Yasar Yakis, urged the alliance to authorize deployment of Patriot anti-missile systems and other defenses against the possibility of an attack from Iraq.
The Turkish military has begun preparations for a war on its southeastern border. The Reuters news agency quoted a military official as saying 10,000 troops have moved "to different areas in the region" in recent days. On Wednesday, the general staff announced additional armor and materiel were being shipped to forces in the border region, which has been the site of a 15-year conflict against the country's Kurdish separatists.
Turkish officials say the military is prepared to deploy thousands more troops several dozen miles farther into Iraq in the event of full-scale war, but only to assure the security of its own border and prevent refugees from pouring into Turkey, as they did in the Gulf War.
Many in this Muslim nation of 67 million are also worried about the potential economic fallout of a conflict, quoting estimates that the Gulf War cost the roughly $50 billion in lost cross-border trade and tourism revenue. To counter those concerns, the Bush administration has assembled a package of grants, loans and loan guarantees worth as much as $14 billion.