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Turkey Grants U.S. a Path to Move Supplies, Not Troops

Special to The Times

Turkey agreed Wednesday to open its territory to shipments of fuel, food, water and medicine for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and to flights evacuating their wounded -- but not the passage of weapons or troops.

In turn, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised Turkey an important role in rebuilding Iraq after the war and said Turkey’s new commitment to the war effort could help overcome congressional opposition to $1 billion in proposed U.S. aid.

But Powell’s hastily arranged visit to the Turkish capital, aimed at mending a deep rift between two longtime NATO allies over the war, fell short of winning what U.S. officials most wanted: a guarantee that Turkish troops would not invade northern Iraq and clash with the United States’ Kurdish allies there.

Instead, Turkish leaders promised to try to coordinate any military moves with U.S. commanders, and the two sides agreed on a set of “early warning” signals that would prompt discussion about whether Turkish troops should intervene.

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Repairing relations has become a priority for leaders of both countries, with anger over the war rising in the Islamic world and Turkey desperately needing U.S. aid.

The help Turkey promised Wednesday is far more modest than what the Bush administration first sought -- permission to deploy 62,000 U.S. troops through Turkey to attack Baghdad from the north. The parliament’s rejection of that request March 1 sent U.S.-Turkish relations to their lowest point in decades and forced the United States to reroute the 4th Infantry Division into Iraq from the south. The unit has not entered combat yet.

Turkish leaders, elected in November, have complained bitterly that the administration lobbied them too aggressively, demanded more than they could deliver and misread the depth of antiwar sentiment here. It was only after the war began that Turkey opened its airspace for U.S. strikes on Iraq. But the Turks still refused to allow U.S. warplanes to use bases on their territory for combat missions as they had during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The denial of Turkish territory as a base for military operations -- especially for the 4th Infantry’s planned march into northern Iraq -- struck the Bush administration as a stinging setback. Washington had viewed Turkey as its most steadfast military ally in the Muslim world.

Powell and his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, took pains Wednesday to put those strains behind them.

“Turkey is an important member of the coalition that is now aligned against the regime of Saddam Hussein,” Powell, standing at Gul’s side, told reporters. “Turkey will have an important role to play” in postwar Iraq, he added, “not only with direct reconstruction help but also by the example that Turkey will provide to Iraq of a Muslim democracy living in peace with its neighbors.”

Gul said Powell’s one-day visit was “timely in answering those criticisms about Turkish-American relations” and “helped dispel all issues” standing in the way of future cooperation.

In meetings with Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Ahmet Sezer and senior military commanders, Powell coupled his conciliatory message with a warning that the administration would have trouble securing congressional approval for aid to Turkey unless they cooperated fully on Iraq.

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Powell got nearly every promise he asked for -- a Turkish supply route for the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s 1,000 paratroopers in northern Iraq; landing rights for medical evacuation flights and warplanes in distress; and an end to bureaucratic holdups at the Turkish border for United Nations relief supplies destined for Iraqi civilians.

Gul told reporters that Turkey already has granted the landing rights, and a Turkish official said the delivery of supplies to the U.S. Army paratroopers would start within a few days.

No parliamentary approval is required because Turkish truck drivers, not U.S. military forces, would make the deliveries, he said.

On the unresolved issue of a Turkish intervention, Powell said tensions had eased over the last week as Turkey held back on plans to send 40,000 troops into northern Iraq.

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But Turkish leaders briefed him on three security threats that still could trigger an incursion: a flood of Iraqi refugees toward Turkey’s border, a return of armed Turkish Kurd separatists now hiding in northern Iraq, or an attack by Iraqi Kurdish militias on oil-rich Kirkuk, a city under Iraqi government control. Turkey worries that the militias would expel the city’s ethnic Turkmen population and use its oil wealth to finance an independent Kurdish state supportive of violent Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

“In each of these situations,” Powell said, “we have been able to demonstrate to our Turkish friends that we are monitoring the situation closely, we have it under control and therefore, at the moment, there is no need for any movement of Turkish forces across the border.”

Powell said the two sides were working to form a committee to monitor potential conflicts in northern Iraq. But several sticking points remain, according to U.S. and Turkish officials. Turkey wants a written agreement on circumstances that would justify an incursion by its army. The U.S. insists that the committee have the final say on any role for Turkish troops.

In an interview, Gul said Turkey’s hands would not be tied.

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“The Americans are very sensitive to our concerns,” he said. “But war is a dynamic process and if the conditions I mentioned do arise, we as a sovereign state will have the right to act independently.”

At one point during Powell’s visit, about 500 war protesters gathered outside the Turkish prime minister’s office, chanting “Yankee go home!” and clashing with police.

Powell left Turkey on Wednesday and was scheduled to be in Brussels today to meet with foreign ministers of the European Union, who have been critical of the war in Iraq.*

Boudreaux is a Times staff writer and Zaman a special correspondent. Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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