- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

With its economy crumbling and Washington about to withdraw an offer of billions in aid, Turkey's political leadership has been debating whether to permit U.S. forces to use its territory and its airspace in a military campaign in Iraq. If Ankara agrees, this could force Saddam Hussein to wage all-out war on a second front, making his military predicament all the more desperate.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took office five days ago, supports overflight rights, as well as Washington's request to deploy approximately 62,000 troops on Turkish territory. So, too, does the military the most powerful institution in Turkey, which remains the region's only democratic majority-Muslim state. With U.S. ships carrying large amounts of military equipment and waiting in the eastern Mediterranean off the Turkish coast to unload, Washington has been urging Mr. Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party for weeks to enact legislation supporting overflights and troop deployment rights on Turkey's soil.

Unfortunately, such legislation has been stalled in parliament. On March 1, before Mr. Erdogan took office, the 550-seat body defeated by four votes a U.S. proposal to give Turkey $15 billion in loans and grants for permitting the deployment to go forward. Mr. Erdogan has been reluctant to bring such a proposal before parliament again unless he can be certain it will pass. He and his allies face two major political obstacles: (1) U.S. action to disarm Saddam Hussein is decidedly unpopular in Turkey, with public opinion polls regularly showing 80 percent of the electorate opposed to attacking another Muslim country, Iraq; and (2) the complicated situation involving the restive Kurdish population of northern Iraq, and Ankara's deep-seated fear that Iraqi Kurds will establish an independent Kurdestan there.

That is Turkey's nightmare scenario. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish government fought a violent civil war, in which more than 30,000 people died, with the Kurdestan Workers' Party, or PKK, a violent successionist group headquartered in Syria and the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon home to Hezbollah and and other terrorist groups from around the world. After forcing Syria to kick out PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by threatening to go to war with Damascus, Turkey captured Ocalan and defeated the PKK on the battlefield in 1999.

Turkey is desperately worried that Kurdish resistance forces based in northeastern Iraq and protected from Saddam's barbarism for the past decade by the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone will declare independence and incite Turkey's Kurds to do the same. Turkey also is concerned that those same forces will try to seize control of Iraqi oil fields after allied forces invade from the north.

For the past few weeks, the Bush administration has been engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance. It has emphasized to the Iraqi Kurds that their national aspirations can best be met as an autonomous region of Iraq, and emphasized to the Turks that they have nothing to fear from the relatively benign form of democratic Kurdish nationalism in existence in northern Iraq over the past decade. We hope that, when the Turkish parliament votes again, perhaps as early as today, on the deployment of U.S. forces, the politicians will act in their country's best long-term interests by voting yes.

But, due to Turkey's indecision and delay, the United States has been required to establish alternate means of entry for ground forces into northern Iraq for at least the first two weeks of war.

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