- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

ANKARA, Turkey The leader of Turkey's winning party refused yesterday to commit to allowing U.S. warplanes to use Turkish bases in any war with Iraq and declined to say whether his country's close military ties with Israel will be maintained.

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party said Turks consider Israeli policies toward Palestinians to be "terrorism," but added that Turkey's close economic relations with Israel would not be influenced by popular anger.

Mr. Erdogan is the power broker in the Justice party, which won a massive election victory Sunday. He is ineligible to serve as prime minister because he was convicted of reading a poem that courts deemed anti-secular. His party has been meeting throughout the week to discuss who will become prime minister, but Mr. Erdogan will most certainly continue to be the party's most influential voice.

Mr. Erdogan once belonged to a pro-Islamic party that the military forced from power for confronting the secular establishment. He has made it clear, however, that the Justice party is looking to follow a moderate, pro-Western stand. And he says that while his party opposes a war in Iraq, it would respect decisions taken by the United Nations.

"The most preferred result is to resolve this issue in peace," Mr. Erdogan said.

Turkey, which borders Iraq, was a key launching pad for U.S. aircraft during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The United States already has about 50 aircraft in southern Turkey at Incirlik air base and would be eager to use the sprawling NATO facility if there is a conflict with Iraq.

Mr. Erdogan spoke as the head of Turkey's military, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, was in the United States to discuss Iraq. The military is expected to have a dominant say in crucial security or foreign policy issues.

When asked if the new government would agree to a request to use Turkish bases, Mr. Erdogan said: "I don't find it appropriate to talk about indefinite results."

"We don't know what the outcome will be from the United Nations. The United States has not clarified its position yet," he said.

Turkey fears fighting in Iraq could destabilize the region and harm the fragile Turkish economy as it struggles to recover from a brutal recession that has left 2 million unemployed.

Turkey also worries that with an ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, minority Kurds who control an autonomous zone in northern Iraq could declare an independent state. That, Turkish leaders fear, could inspire Turkey's large Kurdish population.

Fighting between Israel and the Palestinians is also an emotional issue for most Turks, who share the Islamic faith with most Palestinians. The Turkish press, and in particular the pro-Islamic press, has harshly criticized Israel, and especially Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, during Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory.

At the same time, Turkey is Israel's closest ally in the region. Turkey and Israel have close economic ties, and the Israeli and Turkish militaries have held joint air force exercises.

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