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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Financial Times (London) March 4, 2003

'The US cannot just talk to the military, haggle - and sign the cheque':

TURKEY: For all its misgivings about a war on Iraq, the government in Ankara may find it hard to refuse the deployment of US troops on its territory for long, write Leyla Boulton andDavid Gardner

By Leyla Boulton, Judy Dempsey, David Gardner and Peter Spiegel

The Turkish parliament's failure to allow more than 60,000 US troops to use the country as a base to launch an attack on Iraq has not only greatlycomplicated Washington's militaryplanning. It has added more layers of uncertainty to Turkey's horrendously difficult political, diplomatic and financialsituation - a sort of perfect storm in which all the country's problems areconstantly being flung into each other.

Throughout the fraught negotiations of recent weeks between Ankara and Washington, Turkey has been depicted as a greedy carpet-haggler seeking to exploit US war plans for money. A vote allowing US forces to open anorthern front against Iraq would have secured a US package worth up to Dollars 24bn in grants and soft loan guarantees to bolster Turkey's debt-riddeneconomy. But as one Turkish diplomat says: "Ifthis vote shows anything, it is that thisis about more than money."

Turkey, the only Nato member bordering Iraq, has from the start had reservations about President George W. Bush's plans for a regime change in Baghdad. It fears this would open a Pandora's box of ethnic and religious turmoil, with dangerous spill-over effects, especially for its own predominantly Kurdish south east.

The untried government of the Justice and Development party (AKP), elected last autumn despite the military's profound distrust of its Islamist roots, was always going to face a difficult choice. Opposition to the war is wall-to-wall in Muslim Turkey, where demonstrations against the US have been frequent and growing. Moreover, in common with most of Iraq's neighbours, Turkey no longer sees Saddam Hussein's regime as a significant threat, at least in the short term.

Abdullah Gul, the prime minister, has gone to great diplomatic lengths to try to persuade Baghdad to co-operate fully with the United Nations and deny the US any pretext to launch an invasion. Yet as war comes nearer, the AKP hierarchy led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan - who has embraced a reformist, pro-European Union agenda - has decided that the national interest requires Turkey to line up alongside its traditional US ally.

"You can't prevent an earthquake but what you can do is try to have fewer deaths and destroyed homes," explains Mehmet Dulger, head of parliament's foreign relations committee.

Yet the decision is complicated by the swirl and cross-currents of Turkish politics. In particular, the arch-secular generals and mandarins - already smarting from Mr Erdogan's determination to push the Turkish Cypriot leadership into the concessions needed to reunite the divided island of Cyprus with its Greek south - want the AKP government to take sole responsibility for an unpopular pro-war stance.

With its inexperience, and an overloaded agenda that would challenge any administration, the government failed to foresee the parliamentary revolt by about 100 AKP deputies. "They were so busy negotiating the various accords with the Americans that they did not have time for the task of preparing public opinion to support them," says Mr Dulger.

The Bush administration in turn irritated the Turks with a high-handed approach, setting no fewer than four deadlines. "They considered us as blank-cheque allies," Mr Dulger adds.

The US pressure followed weeks of perceived procrastination by what for Turkey is an unusually independent-minded government. "A new kind of democracy and independence is emerging," says an official from an EU member state. "That is not to say (Ankara) is questioning its relationship with Washington. It is saying that the US cannot assume it can pick up the telephone, talk to the military, haggle over the financial prize and sign the cheque. Things have changed and that is Gul's and Erdogan's challenge."

Yet for all the jostling for position inside Turkey, it is the generals themselves who are leading the charge in demanding a say in the shaping of post-Saddam Iraq. Their wishes are less likely to be taken into account by Washington if US troops are denied the use of Turkish soil.

The fear that the generals are articulating is that Iraq's Kurds, after a decade of de facto self-government protected by US and British warplanes policing the northern no-fly zone, will cement their autonomy within a loosely federal, post-Saddam Iraq. Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq - let alone the dream of independence the Kurds say they have now eschewed - could, in Ankara's view, reignite the insurgency of Turkey's 12m Kurds, only recently reduced to quiescence.

Turkish officials and officers are studiedly vague on what degree of autonomy for Iraqi Kurds they are prepared to countenance. "What is going on in northern Iraq is temporary," says a foreign ministry official. "The end result will be decided by the totality of Iraqi society when they are united again. My view is that there will be a clash among Kurds and Arabs and other groups and bloodletting will happen."

While that is certainly possible, a more widespread view is that there are going to be clashes between the Iraqi Kurdish militias and the Turkish army.

As part of the now moot accords over US troop deployment, Washington agreed that Turkey would send up to 40,000 troops into northern Iraq, despite the risk of adding an extra outside element to an already unstable situation. The troops' official mandate would be to set up 12 refugee camps, to cope with any repetition of the nearly half a million people who fled into Turkey during the 1991 Gulf war.

"In 1991 the entire world came upon us and told us to open our border," recalls a Turkish foreign ministry official. "Of the 500,000 who came to Turkey, no more than 300 people went to western countries - and that after years of meticulous checks. We want to prevent a recurrence of that."

Despite Saturday's failed vote, Turkey remains determined to put troops into northern Iraq, regardless of whether they are accompanied by US forces. That would make clashes with the Kurds more likely, especially as the army wants to mop up remnants of the anti-Turkish insurgency, run by the former Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), sheltering in the Iraqi enclave. "They want to wipe out the PKK on their way in," says one intelligence officer. But that is not the only bit of tinder waiting for a match.

Yasar Yakis, the foreign minister, has warned that Turkish troops could be deployed to prevent Kurdish forces from seizing Kirkuk and Mosul, oil centres that could - in the more lurid Turkish scenarios - provide the wealth to finance a pan-Kurdish state that would take a chunk of south-east Turkey. The Kurdish militias did, briefly, take Kirkuk during the abortive 1991 uprising against Baghdad. But the fear now is that more than 100,000 refugees forced out of Kirkuk by Mr Hussein's forces will return home - and that Turkey's troops could try to prevent them.

As one Turkish observer puts it: "The Americans would be going in as liberators, while we would be perceived as a hostile invading force."

Turkish concerns about northern Iraq are real enough. Iraq, after all, was originally bolted together by British colonialists from three provinces of the collapsed Ottoman empire. Territorial loss is a theme that haunts the Turkish memory. "In this region there has been a collapse of time and history is compressed for all of us," says Ozdem Sanberk, director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. "We cannot get rid of our historical baggage."

Part of that baggage, and another potential casus belli between Turks and Kurds, is the position of the Turcomans, a small Iraqi minority of Turkic origin. There have been ominous rumblings out of Ankara that Turkey might intervene to help its kith and kin from being swamped by the Kurds, even though most Turcomans - who amount to a fraction of the number Turkey claims - live in Arab areas under Baghdad's control.

For all these reasons of realpolitik, and because Turkey would like to recoup some of the Dollars 30bn-plus losses it suffered during the Gulf war, Turkish officials do not exclude the possibility that the US troops resolution will be resubmitted to parliament. But few believe that can happen until after a by-election on Sunday in which Mr Erdogan - until recently banned from office for alleged religious incitement - is likely to win a seat as a prelude to replacing Mr Gul as prime minister.

Mr Erdogan had, moreover, been banking on the US money to help soften the fiscal austerity required by Turkey's agreement with the Inter- national Monetary Fund designed to restructure the economy and bring under control a daunting Dollars 100bn public sector debt. This would enabled him to continue keeping his pre-electoral promises to increase social spending and fund big road-building and other employment-creating projects without painful cuts elsewhere. As he told deputies before Saturday's vote: "Those who oppose the war will change their tune when they receive their wages three days late."

Additional reporting by Judy Dempsey

The fourth infantry division, based in Fort Hood, Texas, is the most technically sophisticated fighting force in the US army. Its tanks are equipped with computers that track the movement of ground forces, enabling battalions to cover huge swaths of land with unprecedented speed. Its Apache attack helicopters have the cutting-edge Longbow radar, alowing them to fire a dozen guided anti-tank missiles from miles away in a matter of seconds and disappear before the munitions have reached their target.

But in recent days Pentagon officials have run into a unforeseen problem with its "digital division". They do not know where to put it.

For more than a week, the equipment for the fourth infantry has been sitting on transport ships in the Mediterranean, awaiting Turkish permission to unload at the southern port of Iskenderun.

Military analysts say a Pentagon decision on whether to send the transport ships south through the Suez Canal and on to Kuwait must be made within a matter of days. Iskenderun has 10 berths in which to unload equipment but only two of them are able to unload the hulking roll-on, roll-off transports that hold much of the divisions' heavy armour.

That means it could take more than a week to unload the ships and another to load the weapons systems on to railway cars and send them to eastern Turkey. Unless this begins soon, the 62,000 troops that are part of the task force will not be ready until early April, pushing the Pentagon's war plans dangerously close to the brutally hot summer months.

But turning the ships round and sending them to Kuwait, the only other Iraq neighbour to allow the deployment of heavy US and British divisions, poses more problems.

Indeed, there is growing concern among top military officers that the ports in Kuwait, which are small compared with the immense Saudi harbours used during the Gulf war, may not be able to handle the amount of military hardware arriving in the region. "The Kuwaiti port facilities are shaping up as a choke point," says Loren Thompson, a defence analyst with the Lexington Institute. "Kuwaiti ports are very well set up for shipping out oil but not for unloading equipment rapidly."

Already, transport ships carrying weapons systems for the 101st airborne division are headed to Kuwait. And the Pentagon is expected shortly to call up another heavy division, the German-based first armoured, which will come with at least another dozen ships.

Pentagon officials indicate they have not yet given up on sending the fourth infantry to Turkey. However, government officials who have been briefed on plans for northern Iraq say that General Tommy Franks, head of US central command, has begun revisiting contingency plans.

Analysts say those plans most likely include using airborne light infantry divisions, including possibly the 101st airborne or elements of the 82nd airborne, to fly into Kurdish-controlled airbases in north-east Iraq. But such light divisions do not come with nearly the amount of big armoured set pieces contained in the fourth infantry.

The 101st, for example, relies mostly on Humvee-mounted anti-air weaponry, along with Apache attack helicopters and towed field artillery. There has been discussion of trying to move heavy weaponry in via airlift but such an effort would be limited by the size of the equipment.

A C-17 aircraft, the US military's most advanced large transport aircraft, can carry only a single Abrams battle tank at a time. But a single heavy brigade is equipped with more than 100 such tanks and each sortie to bring in a tank would be accompanied by a squadron including refuellers, jamming aircraft and escort aircraft.

Military analysts disagree about whether to deploy a light division to northern Iraq or a full heavy division. Patrick Garrett, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, notes that southern Turkey and northern Iraq are mountainous, bringing problems for a quick drive by a division such as the fourth infantry.

"There are only a handful of corridors to have tanks transit through," he says. "Those corridors are well monitored and would make excellent ambush locations."

Instead, the goal of a northern front, defence officials say, would be to occupy Iraqi troops based around Mosul, ensuring that they do not redeploy to Baghdad to assist in defending the city. Also, they are likely to play a security role, ensuring that Kurdish groups do not get close to the Turkish border or trigger a wider conflict within the region.

Mr Garrett says that given the state of the Iraqi military, a light infantry division is equally capable of completing both missions. In addition, US defence officials said last week they had already seen new evidence that an Iraqi Republican Guard unit in the north had begun moving south towards either Baghdad or Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit.

The Pentagon is increasingly confident that Iraqi troops in the north pose a minimal threat. Recent published reports say that defectors from northern Iraqi first corps have told of ground equipment in a state of disrepair.

But Mr Thompson, the analyst, notes that turning the fourth infantry round may force the US military to begin an attack without most of the division's assets. "There would be a back-up at the Suez Canal, there is transit time around the Arabian peninsula and there is a back-up at the Kuwaiti port," he says. "On day one, the ground force that attacks Iraq will be smaller."

Peter Spiegel

Copyright 2003, The Financial Times Limited