The Turkish government notified parliament today that it was willing to allow as many as 62,000 U.S. troops and 320 military aircraft to use Turkish bases to open a northern front against Iraq -- significantly more than previously discussed -- but negotiations continued over political assurances and economic aid that Turkey would receive in return.
A parliamentary vote could be held as early as Wednesday, clearing the way for the arrival of the Army's 4th Infantry Division and U.S. ships that have been offshore waiting to unload tanks and other equipment. But a senior Turkish official said the government acted under U.S. pressure and was not certain the decision would be endorsed in parliament, a constitutional requirement, without final agreement on the economic and political issues first.
After weeks of hard bargaining, the governments are near a deal, officials from both sides said. But sources familiar with the talks said differences remain over a U.S. demand that its offer of $6 billion in aid carry the same conditions attached to loans from the International Monetary Fund, as well as Turkish concerns about a Kurdish state emerging in northern Iraq and U.S. plans to arm Kurdish militiamen there.
"We're going to the parliament because that's what the American administration wants us to do," the Turkish official said. "For planning reasons, they are in a hurry. We'd like to go to parliament with an agreement, so we can say the Americans have agreed to these items. Unfortunately, we don't have time for this, so it's not going to be easy."
Public opinion polls in Turkey show more than 95 percent opposition to involvement in a war against Iraq, and many Turkish lawmakers have criticized the U.S. plans. But the governing Justice and Development Party has a wide majority in parliament -- 362 of 550 seats -- and its leaders have been pressing members to approve the deployment.
The party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was scheduled to present the government case during a closed-door party meeting Wednesday morning. In a speech to lawmakers today, he said he would not order them to vote yes. But he also issued a warning by asking a party committee to expel an outspoken member who voted against a decision Feb. 6 that allowed the U.S. military to begin preparing bases.
Mehmet Ali Birand, a commentator with close ties to the government, said the ruling party, which took power less than four months ago, is deeply divided. "It's a very risky parliament vote we're going to witness. I think there's a 60 percent chance they'll pass it," he said.
Those who oppose the measure most strongly, he said, include a small group of Islamic conservatives and a larger group that has not forgotten how the last war against Iraq devastated the Turkish economy.
But one ruling party member who plans to oppose the measure predicted it will prevail. "My vote will be against it," said Emin Sirin, "but this is going to be considered a vote of confidence for the government, and most of the deputies are not going to act against the government."
The government's bill authorizes a deployment of U.S. forces much larger than the 15,000 troops Turkish officials originally suggested they might be willing to accept, but short of the 80,000 the Pentagon originally requested. Officials from both sides had been talking about 30,000 in recent days. The bill also would limit the number of U.S. warplanes based in Turkey to 255, the number of helicopters to 65 and the entire deployment to six months.
The right to station troops and equipment in Turkey is critical to U.S. plans for war with Iraq, making it possible to attack simultaneously from the south, through Kuwait, and from the north, across the Turkish border and through the Kurdish-controlled autonomous zone.
The proposal sent to parliament also authorizes deployment of an unspecified number of Turkish troops in Iraq. Turkish officials have said they intend to match or exceed any U.S. deployment. The statements have caused alarm among Iraqi Kurds, who object to Turkish troops in their territory and suspect they may attempt to seize the rich oil fields around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Turkish officials say the primary mission of their troops would be to prevent an influx of refugees into Turkey. But they also acknowledge the troops would try to block establishment of an independent Kurdish state. About 12 million Kurds live in Turkey.
For much of the past two decades, the Turkish military has battled Kurdish separatists who sometimes used northern Iraq as a base for attacks in Turkey. Turkish officials have insisted that any additional weapons the United States provides the Iraqi Kurds must be collected at the end of the war because they are worried the arms could fall into the hands of their enemies.
Turkish officials said negotiators were also trying to get a joint commitment to the integrity of Iraq's postwar borders.
"The Americans agree in principle, but when it comes to the wording, there has been some reluctance," said Sedat Ergin, a columnist for Turkey's largest newspaper, Hurriyet. "I keep hearing from Turkish officials that the American negotiators are acting like the spokesmen of the Kurdish groups."
Turkish officials said other sticking points include their requests for "concrete guarantees" of textile trade concessions and the ability to buy oil at concessionary rates during and after a war. While the two sides have settled on a package of $2 billion for military purchases and $4 billion in other grants, some of which could be leveraged into loans, Turkish officials are upset by the U.S. insistence on IMF conditions.
Staff writers Dan Morgan and Peter Slevin in Washington contributed to this report.