US Clearing Way for Military Sales to Turkey

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The Bush administration is clearing the way for the sale of military helicopters to Turkey–in what could be the first piece of a multibillion-dollar aid package aimed at shoring up support for a possible war in Iraq–congressional sources said on Wednesday.

The US Export-Import Bank is expected on Thursday to back a loan facility giving Turkey access to about $324 million in loan guarantees to purchase eight S-70B Seahawks and six UH-60 Black Hawks made by Sikorsky–a unit of United Technologies Corp.

The proposed helicopter sale stalled last 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 under the more than 10-year-old Export-Import Bank program–which was set to expire.

The military sale is expected to be part of a broader aid package for Turkey that could total as much as $14 billion–including loan guarantees and other benefits–to help mitigate the economic shock of a war with Iraq.

The United States is counting on Turkey’s help if it takes military action to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein–who 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.

The Pentagon is concerned that Turkey had not yet agreed to allow as many as 75,000 US troops to launch a possible attack from that country into northern Iraq if Bush made the decision to go to war. But US military inspection teams are assessing possible improvemen’s to bases in Turkey in case of a future agreement.

The United States formally asked its NATO allies on Wednesday for indirect military assistance in case of a war with Iraq–including the deployment of missiles to protect Turkey.

The Export Import Bank is expected to extend the loan facility for a five-year period–though it is unclear when Turkey will tap into the money. A spokeswoman’said the bank does not comment before its board acts.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes–a prominent Greek-American and a Democratic leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–had raised objections last year to helicopter deal–asserting that the Export-Import Bank should not use taxpayer money to finance military sales.

Sarbanes–who also serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee–allied himself with Greek and Armenian groups–longtime critics of Turkey–in opposing similar military sales to Turkey during the Clinton administration.

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