US Package to Turkey May Include Blackhawks

WASHINGTON–DC (Reuters)–The Bush administration is considering the sale of attack helicopters to Turkey as part of a broader aid package aimed at shoring up support from key allies ahead of a possible US strike on Iraq–people involved in the deliberations said on Wednesday.

The proposed military and economic aid package–which sources said was likely to total nearly $1 billion and include $700 million to $800 million for Turkey–could be sent to Congress for approval in the coming weeks. Other US allies in the region could also benefit.

The White House declined to comment.

The proposed helicopter sale stalled earlier this year when the chairman of a key Senate committee balked at extending Gulf War-era legislation allowing the US Export-Import Bank to help finance sales of Black Hawks and Seahawks to rivals Turkey and Greece.

Turkey has bought more than 100 of the helicopters made by Sikorsky–a unit of United Technologies Corp.–under the more than 10-year-old Export-Import Bank program–which expires later this year.

The sources said Ankara wanted to extend the loan facility for at least another year so it could purchase eight more S-70B Seahawks and six more UH-60 Black Hawks.

But Sen. Paul Sarbanes–a prominent Greek-American and a Democratic leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–raised objections–sending the Turkish government and the Bush administration scrambling to find another way to provide the helicopters.

Sarbanes–who also serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee–asserted that the Export-Import Bank should not use taxpayer money to finance military sales. "I don’t think that’s the purpose of the bank," an aide said.

Sarbanes has allied himself with Greek and Armenian groups–longtime critics of Turkey–in opposing similar military sales to Turkey during the Clinton administration.

Despite opposition from key lawmakers–the sources said the administration still wanted to include the helicopters in the broader aid package under consideration for Turkey and other key allies.

"Turkey would like these 14 helicopters–and the Pentagon is trying to find other ways to get the helicopters for them," one source said.

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

Turkey already allows US 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.

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