In a stunning rejection that appeared to kill U.S. plans for a “northern front” in any war against Iraq, Turkey’s parliament refused Saturday to authorize the deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops on Turkish soil.
As antiwar protesters staged a tumultuous protest outside the legislature, Turkish lawmakers weighed appeals by their government to join the U.S. war effort -- with the offer of a $15-billion U.S. aid package in return -- during a dramatic five-hour debate that ended in a cliffhanger vote in closed session. The tally was 264 votes in favor of the deployment, just short of the majority required by Turkish law. There were 250 “no” votes, 19 abstentions and 17 absences. Parliament then adjourned until Tuesday.
Even as the measure was going down in defeat, about 80 American ships carrying equipment for the 4th U.S. Infantry Division floated off the Turkish coast in an indication of U.S. officials’ expectation that its NATO ally would pass the proposal.
The Bush administration did not immediately say whether it would redirect those vessels -- along with the troops they would supply -- south to Kuwait, the primary staging area for an assault on Iraq, or press for a reversal of Turkey’s decision.
“We’re seeking clarification,” State Department spokeswoman Tara Rigler said.
Although Turkey’s government could seek a new vote, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters the government must respect Saturday’s outcome. Turkish commentators said the decision seemed final.
“President Bush has no chance now of carrying out his war plans,” said Sedat Ergin, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper.
The vote was just one setback for the Bush administration Saturday as it attempts to build international support for its position that Iraq has refused to give up banned weapons and must be disarmed by force. Iraq used bulldozers to crush four of its Al-Samoud 2 missiles, meeting the U.N.'s deadline to begin eliminating the medium-range rocket from its arsenal.
Iraq also destroyed a casting chamber for solid-fuel rockets and offered more scientists for private interviews with inspectors. The steps seemed aimed at getting a positive report this week from chief inspector Hans Blix. He is to offer his latest assessment of Iraqi compliance with U.N. demands Friday.
Pentagon officials have said they can wage war against Iraq without Turkey’s participation. But deployment in Turkey would allow U.S. forces to attack Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, from the north as well as from the south, dividing Hussein’s army. Such a strategy, U.S. officials say, would make a war end sooner and result in fewer American casualties.
“I don’t think [that strategy] is salvageable beyond this point because the timelines are very tight,” said a Western diplomat here. “From a planning point of view, the Americans needed an answer yesterday.”
A number of Turkish analysts said that if the vote stands, it could upset Turkey’s long-term relations with its principal benefactor. But U.S. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson tried late Saturday to play down such pessimism, saying the Bush administration was respectful of Turkey’s democratic decision.
For months, the Bush administration has exerted unrelenting effort trying to persuade Turkey to permit U.S. forces to move through its ports to bases near the country’s 220-mile border with Iraq. The American campaign has thrown Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party into a crisis, forcing its leaders to choose between the country’s most powerful ally and the will of voters who elected them in November.
Before Saturday’s vote, about 50,000 people staged a noisy antiwar rally near parliament as 4,000 riot police stood guard. The protesters chanted, “No to war” and “We don’t want to be America’s soldiers.”
Thousands of people remained in the streets after the evening vote was announced, celebrating and chanting anti-American slogans.
Polls show that more than 80% of the Turkish public, which is mostly Muslim, opposes the country’s involvement in a war with Iraq. Turks are historically resistant to the idea of foreign troops on their soil and fear that war would damage the country’s recovery from its deepest economic crisis in decades. Many Turks contend that much of the U.S. aid promised Turkey for its help in the 1991 Persian Gulf War did not materialize.
But the ruling party, an Islamist-rooted movement that swept to power on a pledge to revive the economy, argued that Turkey had an obligation to protect its interests in a war that seemed inevitable. They said Turkey needed to support the war effort to avoid a damaging rupture with the U.S. and to have some influence in a postwar Iraq.
In weeks of hard bargaining with Washington, the government won promises of a $15-billion aid package, including $6 billion in outright grants. Officials also secured Washington’s consent for deploying Turkish troops to northern Iraq, where Turkey wants to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state from a postwar Iraq that might incite this country’s own restless Kurdish minority.
Saturday’s vote seemed to scrap Turkey’s own deployment plans, which had alarmed Washington’s Kurdish allies in northern Iraq. After the Cabinet endorsed the U.S. and Turkish deployments early last week, legislative approval seemed assured. With 362 seats, Justice and Development enjoys a comfortable majority in the 550-seat parliament. But revolt broke out within the party’s normally disciplined ranks.
Emin Sirin, a member of the party, announced last week that he would vote no “because Turkey would be jumping into a barrel of fire.”
Hours before Saturday’s session, party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his legislators in a final effort to persuade them to back the U.S. deployment. The party had already bought more time for lobbying by postponing the vote from Thursday to Saturday.
Turkey’s government was asking for power to authorize the basing of up to 62,000 troops, 255 warplanes and 65 helicopters from the United States.
Opposition lawmakers immediately attacked the motion.
“We are calling on you not to be involved with this disgusting war. Turn back when you still have the chance, otherwise the whole Turkish public will suffer,” declared Onder Sav of the Republican People’s Party.
Salih Kapusuz, deputy chairman of the ruling party, rose in the chamber to reject criticism that the government was bowing to U.S. pressure. “We are not afraid of any force in the world, let alone of the United States,” he said. “We’re just doing whatever is best for the interests of this country.”
After more than an hour of debate, lawmakers voted to close the session to the press and public. The suspense ended when parliament speaker Bulent Arinc emerged to announce the outcome.
Erdogan, the party leader who had lobbied for the U.S. deployment, sounded relieved after the vote, suggesting that the government might accept the decision.
“What more do you want?” Turkey’s Anatolian news agency quoted him as saying. “It was a completely democratic result. May it be for the best.”
Some analysts said the government might still be willing to propose opening some of Turkey’s bases to U.S. warplanes for airstrikes against Iraq. U.S. warplanes already use Turkish bases to patrol the northern “no-fly” zone in Iraq.
But by turning its back on U.S. ground forces, the analysts said, Turkey might have difficulty winning future American support for international loans, entry to the European Union and a host of other foreign policy goals.
“Turkey will be an isolated country that cannot manage its problems and, without foreign aid, will be overwhelmed by those problems,” said Dogu Ergil, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. “That means trouble.”
Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Diyarbakir, Turkey, and special correspondent Zaman from Ankara. Staff writer Edmund Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.