Turkey Does Flip on Iraq Issue

ANKARA– Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said on Wednesday his government would give reluctant but full backing to the United States over Iraq when parliament votes on opening its bases to US troops on February 18.

He said–however–the United States would have to wait until after next week’s Muslim holiday before Turkey’s parliament would give its troops permission to deploy in Turkey.

Turkey has delayed responding to US requests to open its bases and other military facilities for an operation against Iraq and has pursued efforts to avert a war it fears will destabilize the region and undermine its economy.

Gul told reporters Turkey had done its best for peace but must now prepare for war.

A motion to support war would be very unpopular with deputies in Gul’s Justice and Development Party but discipline in the party is strong and the prime minister is confident he can bind the vast majority of his lawmakers into supporting authorization.

"We have to act with our strategic partner the United States. The ball is no longer in our court and we have to think of Turkey’s interests,” Sedat Ergin–one of the local journalists present at Gul’s briefing–quoted Gul as saying.

The support brings NATO member Turkey closer to earning billions of dollars in US war aid designed to protect its economy from damage during any war.

"As you know there is the possibility of a group of 30,000 to 40,000 (US troops) coming…He (Gul) said that would pass on February 18,” Ergin told the CNN Turk television channel.

TEST VOTE

An indication of the mood in parliament will come on Thursday when Gul will seek parliamentary authority for US forces to modernize bases in Turkey for use in a possible war.

"Tomorrow we will go to parliament and win authority from parliament,” Gul told reporters ahead of a cabinet meeting.

Diplomats say the United States would prefer to have full authorization as soon as possible rather than waiting for one decision before the holiday and another afterwards.

Turkish newspapers said on Wednesday US Vice President Dick Cheney had telephoned Gul on Tuesday to urge him to push parliament to approve the stationing of US troops–as well as allowing their transit through Turkey to Iraq.

Despite the delay in extending support–Turkey has close military–commercial and diplomatic ties with the United States. It is also a heavy borrower from the International Monetary Fund.

The Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it saw a link between its support for Washington in Iraq and its own case in UN talks on the future of the divided island of Cyprus.

The government’s delay may in part be aimed at appeasing public opinion–which is strongly opposed to a US-led war against its fellow Muslim neighbor.

Establishing a northern front from Turkey could prove critical in any war. Analysts have said it would relieve pressure on a main invasion force from Kuwait in the south–shortening the conflict and cutting down on the number of American casualties.

The assembly is also expected to vote on deploying Turkish troops abroad. The Turkish army is expected to enter northern Iraq to set up camps for any refugees fleeing the conflict.

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