US Wants to Keep Access to Turkish Airbase

ANKARA (Reuters)–The United States–undertaking a major realignment of its military forces abroad–said on Tuesday it wanted to retain access to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase–despite the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. Washington used the base in southeast Turkey to police no-fly zones in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War–regularly bombing Iraqi air defense that fired on its aircraft. With Saddam’s fall–the United States has sharply reduced its forces there.

"The Incirlik airbase is a Turkish base and over the years we had arrangemen’s with Turkey for its usage. We would like to see those arrangemen’s continue in the future," US Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman told reporters.

"We think those arrangemen’s are good for Turkey and for the United States," said Grossman–in Ankara to brief Turkish leaders on US plans for a realignment of its military forces in the face of new global security threats.

Grossman’said Washington wanted to continue military training and joint operations cooperation with NATO ally Turkey.

He said the Bush administration had made no final decisions on the realignment of its forces–adding: "The location of our forces might change but that does not mean our commitment to defend Europe and to defend Turkey will change."

The United States has begun a dramatic realignment of its military forces to better respond to new threats–including terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Washington announced in April it was withdrawing nearly all of its troops from Saudi Arabia–from which it staged air patrols for a decade over southern Iraq.

Turkey’s strategic value was again highlighted by last month’s wave of suicide bombings in Istanbul in which 61 people died. US President George W. Bush said the bombings showed Turkey was on the front-line of the US-led "war on terror."

RELATIONS BACK ON TRACK

Washington currently has about 1,300 military personnel based at Incirlik–compared with around 4,000 in the 1990s.

Turkey infuriated the United States earlier this year when it refused to allow US ground troops to cross its territory to invade northern Iraq.

Parliament also refused to allow US warplanes to attack Iraq from Incirlik–though the planes were allowed to use air corridors over Turkish territory. Turkish public opinion was strongly opposed to the US-led war to oust Saddam.

US-Turkey relations–traditionally warm–are now firmly back on track–especially after the Ankara parliament in October backed the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq to help relieve pressure on US forces based there.

Ankara later reversed that decision due to strong opposition from Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council.

Grossman–who visits several NATO allies this week–was to see the Istanbul bomb sites before leaving Turkey.

Asked about a possible link between the attacks and the US occupation of Iraq–opposed by much of the Muslim world– Grossman’said they were completely unrelated.

"Saying the attacks in Istanbul and other places are somehow the result of what we have done in Iraq is wrong. … There were terrorists before Iraq and there are going to be terrorists after we have done in Iraq," he said.

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