Refused permission to launch U.S. ground troops from Turkey for a northern front in Iraq, the Pentagon is asking to fly warplanes over Turkish airspace, senior defense officials said Tuesday.
The overflight rights are critical to U.S. plans for a bombing campaign in Iraq, regardless of whether the Turkish parliament reverses its March 1 decision against allowing 62,000 American troops to cross Turkish territory. The failure to secure the overflight rights could seriously complicate U.S. war plans, officials acknowledge.
If the U.S. goes to war, as seems increasingly likely, the Pentagon plans to deploy Navy fighter planes from two aircraft carriers now in the Mediterranean over Turkish airspace on Iraqi bombing runs.
Under the Pentagon's preferred war plan, Air Force tanker aircraft would fly out of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to refuel the fighters and other warplanes in support of ground operations.
If Turkey refuses access, the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman would have to sail through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and launch aircraft several hundred miles farther away from Iraq. Refueling craft might have to travel from bases even farther away.
Since Turkey rejected the Pentagon's initial request to base ground troops on its soil, the U.S. has been developing contingency plans for deploying a smaller, more lightly armed force into northern Iraq. But even those plans would be complicated if Turkey denied overflight rights.
The plans include airlifting the Army's entire 4th Infantry Division -- about 16,500 soldiers now in Texas -- into northern Iraq from Kuwait. The operation would require constructing an elaborate and risky air bridge over hostile Iraqi airspace. The U.S. still hopes Turkey will reconsider its decision, but time is running out.
With the Turkish people solidly opposed to a U.S. invasion of Iraq, granting of the overflight rights is far from assured, Turkish Ambassador Faruk Logoglu indicated Tuesday.
"In the minds of the Turkish polity, it will be part of the broader issue [of whether to aid a U.S.-led war] because you are still going to be saying 'yes' to something in connection with a war -- it's the same universe but a different issue," Logoglu said at a breakfast with defense writers.
Permission for overflights would require a separate vote by the Turkish parliament from the current U.S. request on basing ground troops in Turkey, Logoglu said. He said that although the U.S. has made no formal request for overflight rights, the Pentagon is discussing the matter with the Turkish military.
"When and if there is a formal request, then the Turkish government will have to decide how to take this to the parliament," Logoglu said.
U.S. warplanes are allowed to use Incirlik air base to patrol Iraq's northern "no-fly" zone, but that is for defensive purposes only, the ambassador said. The base "cannot be part of any offensive operation against Iraq," he said.
The U.S. had asked to move its troops through Turkey in return for as much as $15 billion in aid. The government now being formed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister-designate, has not yet decided whether to resubmit the proposal to parliament.
Meanwhile, 36 U.S. vessels carrying equipment for the 4th Infantry Division are in the eastern Mediterranean awaiting a final decision from Turkey.
Even if a vote from the Turkish parliament went the Pentagon's way, it would take weeks to get the shiploads of heavy equipment unloaded, inspected, fueled up, loaded onto trucks and moved across Turkey to the Iraqi border.
President Bush has indicated that he is unwilling to wait that long for Iraq to possibly surrender suspected weapons of mass destruction.
In Washington, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the success of a U.S. military operation in Iraq would be aided by but not hinge on cooperation from Turkey.
"The fact is that we will have a northern option, whether or not
The U.S. military is putting the final pieces of combat power in place in anticipation of an order by Bush to attack Iraq and depose President Saddam Hussein. More than 250,000 U.S. troops are stationed within striking range of Iraq, and more troops and equipment continue to pour into the region.
Bulldozers on the Iraq-Kuwait border are pushing down the berm and filling in the trench built after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, even as reports of U.S. Marines in civilian clothes scouting the border and cutting the fence are downplayed by American officials.
"It's a Kuwaiti project carried out by a Kuwaiti contractor," said Richard H. Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.
With Turkey's cooperation uncertain, the question remains how -- or whether -- the Pentagon would open a northern front against Iraq.
Such a strategy is seen as central to the military's preferred war plan, which calls for overwhelming Hussein with simultaneous air, land and ground attacks from several directions.
To complicate matters, the Turkish army is moving equipment toward the Iraqi border, apparently in preparation for entering Iraq on its own, sources in Turkey said this week. The 20th Armor Brigade reportedly moved 300 truckloads of tanks, ambulances and equipment toward the Habur border gate crossing last week, but they have not left Turkey.
"They're gathering at the starting line and waiting for the gun to sound," said a Western diplomat in Turkey.
Logoglu repeated Turkey's determination to send its troops into northern Iraq in the event of a war to prevent a flood of refugees and the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq if that nation disintegrated.
Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman has publicly warned the Turks to keep their army out of Iraq. The Kurds have warned that they would fight Turkish troops who deploy in areas under their control.
Bush administration officials have said Washington might not object if Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq without a joint U.S.-Turkish agreement as long as they stayed close to the border area and helped care for Kurdish refugees.
But some U.S. military officials and diplomats are concerned that the Turkish army might use operations in Iraq to capture the oil fields in Kirkuk, held by Iraq and claimed by the Kurds, or to attack Turkish Kurd separatists in Iraq.
The Turkish army made four major incursions into northern Iraq between 1995 and 1999, with deployments of 15,000 to 30,000 troops each time, to fight Kurdish guerrillas battling for an autonomous state in southeastern Turkey. "These guys are not afraid to mess around with a superpower," a Western diplomat said of the Kurds.
Schrader reported from Washington and Boudreaux from Ankara, Turkey. Times staff writers Mark Magnier in Kuwait City; Tyler Marshall in Doha, Qatar; and Tony Perry at Camp Matilda, Kuwait, contributed to this report.