The Pentagon is drawing up plans to helicopter thousands of U.S. soldiers into Iraq from Turkey in the early days of an invasion, establishing a northern front that war planners increasingly see as a key part of any U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein's regime.
Designed partly to address Turkish opposition to basing large numbers of U.S. troops on its soil, the plans call for ferrying soldiers into Turkish bases and transferring them quickly to helicopters that would deposit them in northern Iraq, senior defense officials said. There they would secure key oil fields and stabilize provinces already controlled by ethnic Kurds, who oppose the Iraqi president's regime.
The still-developing plans for a northern front would use Turkish bases as staging areas for lightly equipped, U.S. Army airborne units. The troops -- most likely elements of the Army's V Corps, based in Germany, and the 101st Airborne Division, based at Ft. Campbell, Ky. -- would be flown into Turkey a few thousand at a time, only long enough to be shuttled onto combat helicopters for deployment into Iraq.
An assault on Iraq from the north, in addition to much larger invasions planned from the west and the south, "will scare the bejesus out of Saddam," one military officer said, and force him to devote troops and resources to repelling U.S. advances on several fronts.
The plans cannot be successful without the approval of Turkish officials, who have been the focus of intense U.S. diplomatic efforts in recent weeks. The Turks, the sole Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have permitted small numbers of U.S. special forces soldiers to move clandestinely into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, but don't want a huge American military presence in their country.
For months now the Pentagon has been building up forces in the Persian Gulf nations to Iraq's south -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- capable of mounting a major invasion of Iraq by land, sea and air. Such an invasion, including forces that would move into Iraq from Saudi Arabia to the south and west, could involve more than 100,000 U.S. troops. About 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines already are in the Persian Gulf, with heavy armor and other equipment flowing in.
The ability to fly warplanes out of Turkey has long been seen as essential in any campaign against Iraq. The bases are modern facilities built and outfitted to fulfill Turkey's obligations as a member of NATO, which makes them compatible with U.S. planes and far superior to many other air bases in the region.
The country played a key role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when it opened its bases to U.S. military aircraft staging bombing raids against Iraqi targets. The decision to allow the American airstrikes from its territory was made at the last minute.
But until recently, the U.S. has developed its plans largely without counting on using Turkey as a major staging area for American ground troops, sensitive to the delicate economic and political situation in that country and to its worries that territorial ambitions of Kurds in Iraq might spread to its own restive Kurdish minority.
That changed this month, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz flew to Turkey to press the government there to provide more support for the U.S. plan.
"We're quite comfortable with what we can do from the south" of Iraq, Wolfowitz said after meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara, the capital. "Obviously, if we are going to have significant ground forces in the north, this is the country they have to come through. There is no other option."
Senior U.S. officials said that although a campaign against Hussein's regime can succeed militarily without Turkey's involvement, the country's support is key to "keeping it short, keeping it fierce, keeping the flow of refugees small."
The Incirlik air base has been a major hub in the last year for C-17 cargo flights to and from Afghanistan. U.S. and British military aircraft have been using the air base for more than a decade to enforce a "no-fly" zone imposed over northern Iraq after the 1991 war to protect about 3.5 million Kurds living in the region.
With only a few air bases available to U.S. forces in the countries to Iraq's south, planes flying out of Turkey could well represent more than a third of the total air power during an Iraq campaign. The U.S. has secured access to three air bases in Oman, two in Kuwait, one in Qatar and possibly one in the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has yet to grant permission for the U.S. to use its bases to fly combat missions.
"We need access to Incirlik air base," said one former senior U.S. Air Force official familiar with the Pentagon's plans. "Without at least one modern air base, we can't sustain air cover for whatever we do."
Turkey's bases, notably the Diyarbakir air base in the east, are particularly important in providing air support for combat operations in Iraq's north. Two smaller airfields in far-eastern Turkey, Batman and Van, have been used by U.S. special operations forces before and may be used again.
Turkish officials are expected to decide soon which of its air bases to avail to U.S. forces and whether to allow American ground troops to move though the country. An advisor to the Turkish government with knowledge of the discussions said Tuesday that the two countries are still divided. Turkey has offered the use of three air bases, including Incirlik, and wants a strict limit on the number of ground troops in the country. The U.S. is seeking the use of an additional four bases and more freedom to maneuver its forces.
An administration official would say only that "this is a consultative process that's going to take some time."
U.S. teams are in Turkey assessing the readiness of the country's airfields for American forces.
Incirlik is about 570 miles from Baghdad, considerably closer than U.S. air bases in Oman and about the same distance from the Iraqi capital as those in Qatar. It already houses several thousand U.S. military personnel, mostly air crews patrolling the northern no-fly zone and support personnel, and could handle several thousand more. As many as 100 U.S. aircraft could be based there.
The northern front envisioned by the Pentagon would be unlike any traditional ground advance. There would be no tanks rumbling into Iraq from the north and only tiny numbers of special forces soldiers entering the country on the ground.
In fact, the topography of northern Iraq makes the notion of a traditional ground advance absurd, former military officials and analysts say.
Turkey's 206-mile border with Iraq quickly moves from rolling plateaus nearest Turkey to irregular hills and the 8,000-foot peaks of the Zagros mountain range. One railway and just three roads of any significance transverse the mountains.
In contrast to the Iraqi terrain in the south and west, with its large expanses of desert and marshland, the north is "hardly tank country," one U.S. military officer said.
"The notion that [U.S. forces] would go down a highway from Turkey is implausible as an opening gambit," said the officer, who requested anonymity. "The army's plan for Afghanistan was air mobile, and that makes even more sense in Iraq."
Special forces troops, preceded by days of assaults by bombers, fighter jets and gunships, would be the first into Iraq from Turkey. They would arrive by helicopter near the Iraqi air base at Kirkuk and the nearby Kirkuk oil fields, oil refinery and petrochemical plant, and the air base near the city of Mosul.
They probably would have to subdue Iraqi regular army troops, the two fighter squadrons of Iraq's V Corps and I Corps in particular, headquartered at Kirkuk, and the Northern Corps of the Republican Guard, headquartered in Mosul.
Once the airstrips are secured, U.S. C-130 transport planes would land, disgorging light armored vehicles and other equipment to support a ground force. At the same time, airborne light infantry units would be helicoptered in on Apache and Black Hawk attack helicopters to meet up with the equipment. The whole operation is expected to take a few days.
The troops entering from the north would expect to meet less resistance than the main invasion force advancing into Iraq from the south and west. Along with securing oil facilities, they would prevent the Iraqi Kurds from attempting to seize territory of their own. Kurds and Turks stake claims to Kirkuk and its oil riches.
For that reason, military planners are carefully weighing a role for Turkish forces in northern Iraq following a fall of the Hussein regime.
"Once there is a surrender, we would want the Turks to be operating in northern Iraq with prisoners of war and refugees, but in very close collaboration with us and any kind of opposition group," said Bulent Aliriza, a political scientist and specialist on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's a very complicated relationship. The U.S. is really like a man caught between two lovers. It clearly wants to encourage the Kurds, but not to the point that they enrage the Turks. It's a delicate act."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times