- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) — U.S. President George W. Bush and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson held talks Wednesday on Iraq and NATO aid to Turkey.

The talks came as the White House awaited Ankara's response to its final offer of economic aid and Turkey's decision on whether to allow more U.S. troops on Turkish soil.

NATO, after weeks of French, German and Belgian blockage, last week voted to provide Turkey with preventive military aid if Iraq attacked the country in retaliation for its support of the United States in the showdown over weapons of mass destruction.

The aid was provided after Turkey made a formal request for it as a member of the alliance formed after World War II.

"On the 12th of September (2001), NATO passed a declaration of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty," Robertson said in the Oval Office before talks with the president began. "We came to the aid of an ally, the United States, under threat, under attack, and today we have sent AWACS aircraft, Patriot missiles and chem-bio defensive material to Turkey, another ally, in trouble, under threat.

"That's what the alliance of free nations is all about," he added. "Sometimes we can take a better time to do it."

Bush thanked Robertson for "keeping this alliance together, moving it forward." NATO, he said, was the United States' "most important alliance."

The split in NATO, caused by the three European countries' opposition to possible war with Iraq, was the most serious since Britain and France took unilateral action against Egypt in 1956 over nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Robertson drew a laugh from Bush when he recalled a quote from Winston Churchill and applied it to NATO. The alliance, he said, like the United States, "can always be counted on to do the right thing after it has exhausted every other alternative."

Meanwhile, Washington Wednesday said discussions with Turkey on a U.S. economic aid package were continuing, but "essentially we are waiting to hear" Turkey's answer to what was described as a final offer.

Washington has reportedly offered Ankara about $6 billion in grants in exchange for use of its bases, which it has spent hundreds of millions upgrading. Reports of Turkey's request vary, but the Turkish media has cited figures in excess of $10 billion. There are also negotiations about long-term loans.

However, administration officials indicate Washington isn't enthusiastic about boosting the aid offer to the Turks.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also said Washington wanted a decision soon on its request to station more troops in Turkey in case of war against Iraq, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld separately said there was no real time constraint on that decision.

The Pentagon, Rumsfeld said, was already crafting contingency plans that would not use Turkey as a base for ground forces.

"You make your workarounds beforehand, then you see what happens," said Rumsfeld.

Materiel for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division is languishing on ships off the coast of Turkey, waiting for permission to unload. As many as 15,000 soldiers from the division could be based in Turkey, if permission is granted.

Rumsfeld conceded the Turkish parliament's possible refusal to allow American soldiers to launch an attack from its soil makes the prospect of fighting a war more difficult.

"Obviously the more assistance one gets, the easier it is, and the less assistance one gets the more difficult it is," Rumsfeld said Wednesday at the Pentagon.

Nevertheless, Fleischer said, the U.S. military is "sufficiently flexible" and would still carry out any mission it is directed to do.

"There are two issues: the military issue and whether or not Turkey will decide … to expand the amount of cooperation they have already given the United States for war planning purposes," Fleischer said.

"Secondly, as a long-standing strategic partner of the United States, there are issues under consideration in terms of the impact war might bring to Turkey.

"Those issues are being discussed. And there is not a lot of time left to discuss them," he said. "There comes a moment when plans must be made, decisions must be made, and it cannot stretch on indefinitely."

Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iraq and Middle East military issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said not having access to Turkish soil could pose serious complications for a U.S. war strategy.

"It does present a serious problem as it puts an immense weight on Kuwait for access to the land battle," Cordesman told United Press International. "(Kuwait) is the only country that will."

Without the northwestern line of attack against Iraq that Turkey offers, U.S. land forces would be bottlenecked on the Kuwaiti border. Saddam Hussein could array his forces against that threat and not have to extend his reach to protect his rear flank.

If the 15,000 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division have to be rerouted to Kuwait, it could slow any planned attack by as much as three weeks, Cordesman said.

Moreover, the U.S. military's primary goal immediately upon entering Iraq is to protect the oil fields in both the north and south from sabotage by Iraqi military forces. Without a Turkish front, the northern fields will be extremely vulnerable.

Having a Turkish entry into Iraq will also put U.S. soldiers in close proximity to ethnic Kurd forces. The Kurdish fighters will provide an important indigenous opposition but must be closely monitored by U.S. troops to prevent them from grabbing land for an independent state or for launching attacks against Turkey.

"We've made it very clear to everyone that Iraq is to remain a single country," Rumsfeld said Wednesday. "We will have forces in place to see that advantage is not taken by any forces in a time of conflict."

It remains unclear if a Turkish decision against U.S. basing will prohibit the use of air bases. If it does, war scenarios become even more difficult, Cordesman said.


(UPI Pentagon Correspondent Pamela Hess contributed to this report)

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