ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey granted the United States permission on Thursday to upgrade Turkish military bases as a first step to inviting thousands of US troops for a possible war on Iraq–amid fears it could cause chaos in the region.
Iraq’s ambassador said opening bases for US troops would be tantamount to joining a war. But Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan said measures approved by parliament in a closed-door session did not constitute any lurch by Turkey into war.
"Rather–we are taking measures to preserve the security of our country against the rising prospect of war,” he said.
"If the house next door is on fire the first thing you ask is ‘Can I extinguish the fire?’ You are compelled to do what you can do to extinguish it. Otherwise your own house will catch fire.”
The outcome is an indicator of the mood in parliament ahead of a vote on February 18 on the critical second measure–to allow the United States to dispatch troops to the bases.
"In the next two weeks we will do all we can to turn a state of war into a state of peace,” Erdogan told reporters. Turkey has campaigned vigorously against any war and kept Washington waiting for a green light to prepare a "northern front” against Baghdad to be launched from Turkish soil. But Ankara is ill-placed to resist the requests of its closest ally. It relies on Washington heavily for support in recovering from an economic crisis and would need Congress’s blessing for an aid package to help it cope with the disruption of a war. The country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed through parliament a resolution opening bases and ports to US military engineers. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) voted against the proposal. The emotion and tension surrounding the issue was reflected by the fact that both the debate and vote were held in secret session. The AKP government clearly fears an unpopular war could dent the popularity that carried it to power in November. Anatolian news agency said 308 approved the motion and 193 opposed it–suggesting at least 14 AKP members voted against.
Iraq Warns Turkey
Meanwhile–Iraq’s ambassador warned Turkey publicly for the first time against compliance with Washington.
"Countries that participate in that way should know that they commit a great crime and will see that they made a strategic mistake–because Iraq has never shown them enmity or done them damage,” Ambassador Talib Abid Salih El Dileyimi told reporters.
In Brussels–NATO announced it had delayed until next week a decision on measures to protect Turkey should Baghdad seek reprisals in the event of US strikes on Iraq–which is accused of having nuclear–chemical and biological weapons.
But NATO chief George Robertson said he was confident the 19-nation alliance would agree planning measures next week. Turkey seeks–among other things–air-defense systems.
Analysts say a northern front launched from Turkish soil would take the pressure off a possible main invasion force pushing into Iraq from the flat lands around Kuwait. It might also allow special forces to quickly seize control of oil fields Washington fears could be sabotaged by retreating Iraqi troops.
A second front could mean a quicker campaign and fewer losses for the United States and other forces that might join an operation many in the region expect in March or late February.
Turkish forces are already inside northern Iraq–an area outside Baghdad’s control since the first Gulf war in 1991–and more are expected. But Turkey says the deployment is aimed at providing for any refugees and preventing any breakup of Iraq.
Turkey is concerned that Kurds in the north of Iraq could use a war to stake a bid for their own independent state. Ankara fears Kurdish independence in Iraq could fuel violent separatism among its own Kurdish population in the southeast.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders were in the Turkish capital on Thursday for talks with US and Turkish officials expected to focus on plans for a post-war Iraq.
"We did not discuss military operations. We talked about peace–a peaceful solution and strengthening our brotherhood,” said Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.