Turkey Drags Feet Despite Helicopter Deal And Aid

WASHINGTON–DC (Reuters)–The Bush administration cleared the way on Thursday for the sale of military helicopters to Turkey–hoping approval of the deal and a multibillion-dollar economic aid package will help shore up Ankara’s support for a possible war in Iraq.

At the urging of senior US and Turkish government officials–the US Export-Import Bank granted Turkey access to $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.

Approval comes amid US concerns that Turkey has not yet agreed to allow as many as 75,000 US troops to launch a possible attack from its territory into northern Iraq if President George W. Bush decides to go to war over Baghdad’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Turkey is allowing US military experts this week to inspect its air bases and sea ports for possible use as staging points in the event the United States attacks Iraq.

The proposed helicopter sale stalled last year when the chairman of a key Senate committee balked at extending Gulf War-era legislation allowing the Export-Import Bank to 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.

Ruth Harkin–a senior vice president at United Technologies–welcomed Thursday’s decision–saying it would "further the Turkish Navy’s plans to enhance its ability to operate in concert with Turkey’s allies in NATO naval operations.”

In addition to the helicopters–officials say the Bush administration is assembling an 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 administration was initially considering a multi-year package in the $4 billion to $5 billion range.

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 Export-Import Bank extended Turkey’s loan program through 2008–though it is unclear when Turkey will tap into the sixth and final installment of the $1.366 billion commitment originally made in 1990.

"We are pleased for such an outcome and we look forward to improving our military relations with the US,” a Turkish official said in Washington. "This is a step in the right direction.”

Sen. Paul Sarbanes–a prominent Greek-American and a Democratic leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–raised objections last year to the 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.

Sarbanes’ office had no immediate comment.

Congressional aides said the deal moved forward after the November congressional elections gave Republicans control of the Senate and cost Sarbanes his Banking Committee chairmanship.

Reports from Ankara revealed that Muslim NATO member Turkey said on Friday it could make only a limited contribution to any US-led war against its southern neighbor Iraq.

Washington is pressing Ankara to open its airbases and facilities for US warplanes and troops for an attack on Iraq over alleged weapons of mass destruction. Ankara opposes a war and has dragged its feet on any response to the US requests–saying it would need United Nations approval for a war and a vote in the Turkish parliament.

"We do not want an operation to start. Turkey is completely focused on peace efforts,” presidential spokesman Tacan Ildem told reporters in Ankara.

"It would be realistic to expect that the contribution Turkey could consider giving to a possible operation–if it meets international law–would be limited because of its historic ties to a neighbor and Turkey’s status in the region.”

But Ildem closed no doors to the United States.

"It’s known that Turkey has given a positive response to some US requests in such a way that would not place (Turkey) under any sort of obligation within the complete framework of planning for potentialities,” he added–without spelling out what Ankara might offer.

The United States may seek clarification when its top general Richard Myers visits Turkey this weekend. But it seems unlikely Ankara would be prepared to refuse permission for the Americans to open some form of "northern front” against Iraq to back a main invasion that might come from the south.

In refusing to co-operate with its closest ally–Turkey might forego the role it desperately seeks in shaping a new order in northern Iraq where it fears creation of a hostile independent Kurdish state. Such a state–Ankara reasons–could re-ignite Kurdish separatism on its own soil.

A WIDE COALITION

Turkey will also need United States’ help in stabilizing its economy that will be hit by the war–whether Ankara backs the Americans or not.

The United States–for its part–might be as eager as Turkey to keep Turkish troops out of actual fighting in an area where they are already viewed with some suspicion–partly because of the history of Ottoman Turkish rule there.

The spokesman’said the government would struggle to win parliamentary backing for armed action without a second United Nations resolution backing war if Iraq failed to allay fears it possesses nuclear–chemical or biological weapons.

Weapons inspectors are due to present a report to the UN on January 27. Many here fear war may follow soon after.

US Ambassador Robert Pearson–in commen’s to journalists–remained sanguine.

"There is no crisis in Turkish-American relations and we are confident we will be able to find acceptable solutions to all of these issues,” he said.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has a strong majority in the assembly–but many of its own deputies are opposed to any war across its borders.

The powerful military–which would have a strong say in decision-making–views the government with suspicion because of its roots in political Islam. The United States–however–has courted the AKP attentively–something that must raise concern in the military command.

The fraught chemistry between AKP and the army may complicate discussions behind the scenes–but ultimately both the General Staff and the ruling party would risk more by turning their back on the United States than by backing it. Politicians–however–must be seen to be doing their best to avoid an unpopular war.

Turkey is seeking US guarantees of financial support to offset economic damage from any war while trying to head off conflict through talks with regional countries such as Egypt–Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey says it seeks to avoid any suggestion that it might act as a "regional bully.”

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