- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit yesterday said that a military strike against neighboring Iraq would be "catastrophic" for his country, even though it strongly supports the U.S. war against terrorism.

The Muslim-majority nation has taken a lead role in the security force for Afghanistan, and its acquiescence if not outright support is considered vital for any major military move against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Private analysts have said they detected a softening in recent days of Ankara's opposition to a military strike against Iraq, which many in Turkey fear could seriously devastate the country's battered economy, strain relations with its Middle East neighbors and encourage Kurdish separatists operating in both Turkey and Iraq.

But Mr. Ecevit appeared to strike a tougher line as he wrapped up a four-day visit to Washington that included meetings with President Bush and top State and Defense Department officials.

"A way can and should be found out" of the problem posed by Saddam, Mr. Ecevit said at a National Press Club news conference.

"But I hope it will not include a military operation, because such an operation could be catastrophic for Turkey, even if Turkey did not participate in it," he said.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Ecevit discussed at the White House on Wednesday the problem posed by Iraq's weapons programs, and Turkish officials said the prime minister and Assistant Secretary of State Marc Grossman discussed Iraq in detail during their private meeting.

But "nobody mentioned a military action during my visit in the United States," Mr. Ecevit said, adding that the well-publicized internal divisions within the U.S. administration over Iraq were "normal in a democracy."

Mr. Bush said Wednesday he discussed with the Turkish leader Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country, and promised to consult with Ankara about any U.S. decisions on Saddam. U.S. fighters rely on Turkish air bases to enforce a "no-fly zone" in Iraq's north.

"No decisions have been made beyond the first theater and the first theater is Afghanistan," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Ecevit expressed some optimism that private diplomacy now under way may ease two long-standing foreign-policy headaches for Turkey.

He said relations with longtime rival Greece had improved in the past few years, and unpublicized meetings between Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, could lead to progress on such thorny issues as the boundary disputes in the Aegean Sea.

He also said that the face-to-face meetings now under way between the leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities on the long-divided island of Cyprus were another hopeful sign.

"It's a very good omen that finally a direct, face-to-face dialogue has started. It may not be easy to reach a solution that would satisfy both sides very soon, but the concept of dialogue itself can be of help," Mr. Ecevit said.

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