In its strongest indication that it is ready to go along with U.S. plans to open a northern front against Iraq, Turkey said Tuesday that it might allow a limited number of U.S. ground troops to deploy on its soil.
Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said: "We have authorized our military based on negotiations with their American counterparts to come up with an estimate for the number of troops that would be needed in order to render the deployment meaningful and to render our strategic alliance with the United States worthy of that label.
"If we find the figure to be acceptable, we would then seek parliament's approval," Yakis said in an interview with the private CNN Turk news channel.
The minister's comments came after intense pressure on Turkey from the Bush administration to open its bases and ports for a war against Iraq. The thousands of U.S. troops would have access through Turkish territory to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, where they could open a second front against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces.
Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's only predominantly Muslim member and Israel's top regional partner, played an important role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when it opened its bases to U.S. and British fighter jets launching strikes against Iraq.
Turkish officials say Turkey would probably reopen its bases to allied forces in the event of another war. But the country's government, formed in November by a party with Islamic roots, has balked at U.S. demands that it play host to as many as 80,000 ground troops.
Polls show that nine out of 10 Turks are against Turkey's participation in a war, and there have been daily antiwar demonstrations.
Another worry of the government's is that in the turmoil that would probably follow if Hussein's regime collapsed, the Kurds of northern Iraq would set up their own independent state, which could become a magnet for Turkey's restive Kurdish community.
Turkey has in recent weeks been lobbying Arab nations and Iran to discuss ways to head off a conflict. Foreign ministers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iran have accepted Turkey's invitation to take part in a summit in Istanbul on Thursday.
"The aim of the conference is to send a very strong message to Saddam Hussein that he needs to fully cooperate with the U.N. weapons inspectors or be prepared to face the consequences," Yakis said. "Iraq also needs to prove that it is not a threat to its neighbors."
According to a Western diplomat who asked to remain unnamed, "What the Turks really want to prove is that they have exhausted all avenues of peace before announcing a decision to side with the United States. This conference is a very positive step in terms of being able to justify war before its own public."
Turkey insists that it can commit itself to joining a war on the side of the U.S. only after U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq issue their findings to the Security Council on Jan. 27 and if the U.N. authorizes military action against Baghdad.
Turkey's industrial elite has in recent weeks lashed out at the government over its Iraq policy amid fears that Washington might withdraw support for Turkey as this country seeks more help from the International Monetary Fund to shore up its crisis-racked economy.
"If there is going to be a war, Turkey must take part in it, grab a leadership role," Aydin Dogan, Turkey's leading media boss and a top industrialist, said in a recent interview. "Otherwise we'll be left out of the game."
Signs of an easing in Turkey's stance came last week when the government allowed U.S. technicians to survey about 10 military bases and at least two Mediterranean ports to assess their possibilities for use in a war.
And on Monday, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, told reporters after a day of talks in the capital, Ankara, that he was leaving Turkey "as many Americans have in the past -- very sure of our strategic partnership and very sure of the vision that we both have in terms of what we want for the region."
Although the foreign minister denied reports that the U.S. had conveyed a new request seeking to deploy no more than 15,000 troops rather than the 80,000 or so initially requested, a senior Turkish official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that U.S. military officials were proposing a lower figure.
"The aim is to negotiate a number that would be acceptable to Turkish public opinion and large enough to satisfy American military needs and secure our partnership," the official said.
Yakis also denied comments attributed to him in the New York Times asserting that Turkey has already agreed to allow the use of its bases. Rather, according to Yakis, Turkey would decide which and how many bases it would open to U.S. use "based on the number of ground troops it would be prepared to have deployed."
"As far as I know, Gen. Myers did not leave with any military pledges from our side," he said.