ANKARA–March 14 (Reuters) – Ruling party leader Tayyip Erdogan was installed as Turkish prime minister on Friday–keeping U.S. hopes alive that Turkey might approve deployment of American troops for an invasion of Iraq.
But outgoing foreign minister Yasar Yakis indicated that any parliamentary vote on the U.S. troop deal would only occur after a government vote of confidence–meaning a motion was unlikely to be presented until late next week at the earliest.
There is also no guarantee that such a plan–if submitted–would be approved.
"After a vote of confidence is taken I believe the prime minister will learn the leanings of deputies in the party and he will make a decision about whether it is appropriate or not to send the motion to parliament,” Yakis told reporters.
Erdogan–who backed a failed attempt to win parliamentary approval for U.S. troops two weeks ago–presented a cabinet list to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Sezer approved the lineup–formally establishing Erdogan as premier with full powers.
The move followed a day of confusion likely to have dismayed U.S. officials–who see time running out for a decision on troops. Erdogan first said he might set up his government on Friday–then declared he would not see Sezer–then finally presented his list in late afternoon.
The uncertainty unsettled financial markets–but Erdogan joked to reporters about the "surprise” he had sprung on them.
The United States–which sees a northern front launched from Turkey as key to speeding victory over Baghdad by forcing it to fight on two fronts–has been pressing Ankara for a decision as its troops mass in the Gulf for action that could be days away.
U.S. President George W. Bush sent a letter to Erdogan on Thursday seeking swift clarification. Erdogan also discussed Iraq in a telephone call with Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Now–Now–Now–Now” read a headline in Millyet newspaper on Bush’s letter. "USA exerting unprecedented pressure on Ankara for a war,” said the conservative Cumhuriyet newspaper.
The United States could yet abandon plans to use Turkish soil. If so–Turkey would forfeit a vital multi-billion dollar aid package to shield it against the economic impact of war.
AMERICANS’ WORST FEARS
Erdogan led his Justice and Development Party to victory in November polls but was barred from the premiership until last weekend because of a conviction for Islamist sedition.
Outgoing prime minister Abdullah Gul–a man who has amassed some authority in his dealings with foreign leaders in the last four months–was appointed foreign minister–replacing Yakis in a cabinet otherwise little changed.
As U.S. navy ships wait off Turkish shores–Erdogan could re-submit a motion on troops to parliament as early as Saturday morning. But party sources said he would probably first push for formal approval of his government programme to provide a framework of political legitimacy.
Erdogan said he would present the programme–which would take about four days to clear–"during the week”–commen’s lacking the sense of urgency Washington may be seeking.
Erdogan suffered a rebuff as party leader on March 1 when the government presented a resolution to parliament to allow 62,000 U.S. troops to deploy–plus warplanes and helicopters.
More than a quarter of his own deputies voted against the motion–reflecting public unease at supporting an attack on a neighboring Muslim state.
The powerful military intervened last week–suggesting parliament should support the United States. But Erdogan might nonetheless be reluctant to risk his authority by submitting a second motion he might yet lose.
"This is what the Americans really feared the most,” one Western diplomat said. "The Turks are not saying yes and they are not saying no. Only the Americans know how long they can wait before pulling the plug on the northern front.”
Some 10 ships loaded with armor and equipment for the Fourth Infantry Division–a body of 30,000 soldiers–waits off Turkish shores for the order either to disembark or divert southwards to the Gulf.