- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

A reversal of the Turkish parliament's shock vote refusing to allow U.S. troops in Turkey seems unlikely at least in the immediate future, which could seriously damage U.S.-Turkish relations, senior Turkish officials told United Press International.

First, the Turks were holding a by-election Sunday that was expected to open the way for the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take over as prime minister in place of his party ally Abdullah Gul.

Erdogan was previously barred from being a member of the Turkish parliament because of charges of "Islamist sedition."

Erdogan's election is considered a virtual certainty barring a major upset. He has said that following the election the government would consider voting again on a draft U.S.-Turkish agreement that would allow the Bush administration to open a northern front in Iraq in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But Turkish officials, speaking to UPI on condition they not be named, said that if Erdogan is elected he would need more than a week to form a new Cabinet and gain parliamentary approval for his government.

By then the U.S. cargo ships now waiting off the Turkish coast to unload tanks and military equipment destined for use in an eventual U.S.-led war against Iraq may have had to sail for another destination.

On Saturday, the Turkish parliament narrowly failed to approve a resolution authorizing U.S. troops to pass through Turkey in order to open a northern front in any war against Iraq. The motion would also have authorized Turkish troops to be deployed in Northern Iraq in the event of a conflict.

The officials attributed the "no" vote to several factors. For one thing, more than 90 AKP deputies either voted "no," abstained, or stayed away from parliament altogether.

But they added that the United States had made the job of the government much harder by forcing the pace. "We very much got the impression that the military timetable was dictating the pace of political and diplomatic events," one said, adding, "the rush made things much harder."

U.S. military planners have said troops passing through Turkey could launch a northern front in Iraq if, as widely expected, the United States goes to war to topple Saddam. The front would compliment others in the south and west of Iraq, reducing the number of casualties, and possibly shortening the war.

In the event of another "no" vote, senior members of the Bush administration have said the war would have to be fought without Turkish help and a without a northern front.

In hard bargaining, Washington and Ankara hammered out an elaborate agreement covering military, political and economic issues. There have been varying reports on what economic aid the agreement provided, but, the officials said, it would provide grants of $4 billion for non-military purposes and $2 billion for military ones.

There was provision for a bridging loan of $8.5 billion and trade concessions, including on textiles.

Whether Erdogan would call for another vote remains to be seen. Wednesday's declaration by the Turkish military calling for support of the American offensive could increase votes for the resolution. The Turkish armed forces are one of the nation's most trusted institutions.

The Turkish military has a specific interest in the agreement because it authorized Turkish troops to be sent to the Kurdish areas of Iraq — the same area into which the Pentagon wants to move troops on their way to Baghdad.

Turkish forces would help control the flow of thousands of Kurds and other Iraqi refugees fleeing the war. During the 1991 Gulf War half a million tried to swarm over the Turkish border.

Another task for the Turkish army, the officials said, would be to protect the rights of the Iraqi Turkomans, ethnically related to the Anatolian Turks. Ankara wants the Turkomans be recognized as an official ethnic minority in Iraq, along with Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, with an equal say in the country's affairs.

Indeed, another factor that contributed to the government's defeat in parliament, the officials said, was the failure of the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition to include any ethnic Turkomans on the committee they established to be a nascent government, just one day before the vote.

As the officials tell it, the Turkomans inhabit a belt of territory that runs from the northwest Iraqi border with Turkey to the southwest frontier with Iran and is populated by 2 million to 3 million Turkomans.

Western authorities on the region, however, see the Turkomans as inhabiting towns and villages that are mostly not contiguous and numbering probably something about 350,00 people.

The Turks want to make sure that Iraqi Kurds will not take advantage of the war to transform their present autonomy from Baghdad into full independence, thus fragmenting Iraq and de-stabilizing the region.

"The Kurds say they do not want independence, and we are sure they mean it," said one official, "but at the same time, we are sure that aspiration (for independence) never leaves their hearts or their minds."

Turkey also wants to ensure that the Iraqi Kurds don't take possession of the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and their rich, adjacent oil fields. Situated on the periphery of the autonomous Kurdish region, both are at present under Saddam's control. Possession of one, or better both, oil fields could provide the money to make the Iraqi Kurdish region not merely viable but prosperous.

"The resources of the country — the whole country — must belong to the people of the country — all the country," said the official.

Recent reports have suggested that U.S. officials plan to handle the Kirkuk-Mosul issue by having U.S. forces take control of the two oil areas, keeping out the Kurds. But this will also be harder if there is no northern front.

Monday thousands of Kurds demonstrated in Irbil and Sulaimaniya, the most important cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, to protest the possible arrival of the Turkish army. In their anger, they burnt Turkish flags, a gesture particularly distressing to the Turks.

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