Bush Backs Turkey Aid Ahead of Possible Iraq War

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The Bush administration is lobbying Congress to grant new economic benefits to Turkey–hoping to curry support from Ankara and other allies ahead of a possible war with Iraq–administration and congressional sources said on Wednesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney has played a central role in the effort–calling lawmakers to press for swift passage of the legislation–which would grant many Turkish goods duty-free access to the U.S. market.

"This would not be on anybody’s radar screen if not for Iraq," said one senior congressional aide.

After Cheney’s intervention–Turkey’s benefits were added to a broader trade measure and won approval in the House of Representatives this week.

Cheney made a similar appeal to the Senate–but it is unclear whether it will pass before Congress adjourns for the November congressional elections–aides said.

Turkey was one of several American allies counting on assistance from Washington as a reward for supporting the war on terrorism–launched in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks last year.

A trade package for Pakistan stalled earlier this year because of opposition from American textile makers and their allies in Congress.

Likewise–Bush has yet to lift Soviet-era restrictions on Russia which link trade and emigration policies–although Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration was "working it with all the energy and force that we can–and hopefully we will get it behind us soon."

UNEASE IN TURKEY

The United States is counting on Turkey’s help if it takes military action to topple Saddam Hussein–whom Washington accuses of seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Turkey already allows U.S. and British warplanes to use one of its air bases to patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

But the NATO member fears war on its borders could further damage the crisis-hit economy and fuel unrest among its own restive Kurdish population in the southeast–particularly if the Iraqi Kurds seek an independent state over the border.

The proposed trade benefits for Turkey would come under the so-called Qualified Industrial Zone program–which Congress established in 1996 to bolster economic ties between Israel–Egypt and Jordan.

Turkey has long sought inclusion in the trade program–and Turkish officials pressed Cheney on the issue when he visited the country earlier this year.

The United States has an open market for most goods–but Turkey’s main exports–textiles–iron and steel and ceramic tiles–all face stiff U.S. trade barriers.

As the United States prepares for possible military action against Iraq–congressional aides said the Turkish trade proposal has become a higher priority–though White House officials played down any connection.

Cheney personally asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas–a California Republican–to add Turkey to a broader trade measure which passed.

Likewise–Cheney appealed to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus–a Montana Democrat–to expedite the proposal.

But it faces opposition from some American manufacturers–who fear a flood of cheap Turkish imports.

The Armenian lobby–long opposed to concessions for Turkey–has also raised objections–casting doubt on Senate passage.

In response to those objections–Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has promised to press Turkey to open its border with Armenia and to "restore economic–political and cultural links."

In a letter to lawmakers–Armitage has also promised to make Armenia’s accession to the World Trade Organization an "administration priority," adding: "To that end–we are working with other WTO members to complete–by the end of this year–negotiations with Armenia for its accession to the WTO."

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