Turkish PM says Turkey looking to grant U.S. airspace rights but not use of bases

By SUZAN FRASER

Associated Press Writer

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that the government will ask parliament to grant the U.S. military the right to use Turkish airspace in an Iraq war but that this request would not allow American planes to use Turkish air bases or refuel in Turkey.

Under the agreement, the United States would not be able to use Incirlik air base, a sprawling facility that already houses 50 U.S. fighters used to patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq, a source said. In the event of a war, those fighters will not be able to fly over Iraq, the source said.

The United States for months has been pressing Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, to allow in 62,000 soldiers to open a northern front against Iraq. But as a possible date for an Iraq war draws closer, Washington has been pushing for the urgent use of Turkish airspace for overflights.

Cabinet spokesman Cemil Cicek said parliament was expected to vote Thursday on the use of airspace.

An Iraq war is extremely unpopular in Turkey and the government has been dragging its feet in asking parliament to approve an agreement with Washington. A first agreement that would have allowed in U.S. troops failed by just four votes.

Cicek said a motion on allowing in U.S. troops could be considered at a later date.

The decision sent markets tumbling Wednesday with traders fearful that the Cabinet decision to only allow airspace rights marked the end of a US$15 billion U.S. aid package linked to the U.S. troop deployment. Istanbul's benchmark IMKB100 index dropped about 6 percent in trading Wednesday, to close at 9,938 points.

Economy Minister Ali Babacan said the original U.S. aid package was no longer valid, but he left open the possibility that a new financial deal could be worked out in the coming days.

The “package does not exist now but it is not possible to say what will happen in a few days,” Babacan said. U.S. officials have said that there would be no financial compensation for granting Washington airspace rights.

U.S. warplanes based in Europe or the United States would need to cross Turkey to strike Iraq. The United States could also use Turkish airspace to ferry troops into northern Iraq.

“What they have requested is for transit passage (of planes) only,” Cicek said. “Whatever the needs will be in the coming days _ that is a different matter.”

Asked whether the authorization would also include the right to use Turkish air bases and the right to refuel, Erdogan said: “no, none of these are included,” the Anatolia news agency reported.

Incirlik was a key hub during U.S. operations in Afghanistan, serving as a supply and refueling station for flights from the United States and Europe to Afghanistan.

Cicek said the latest resolution would also allow Turkish troops to enter Iraq if there is a war. He said Washington had agreed in principle to allow Turkish troops in northern Iraq.

U.S. officials have said Washington opposes a unilateral Turkish incursion in northern Iraq, but the United States has so far failed to convince Turkey to stay out. In a meeting with White House special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Iraqi Kurdish officials, Turks insisted Tuesday that they could cross into Iraq to protect their national interests.

Turkey fears that once Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is toppled, Iraqi Kurds may declare independence _ a move that could inspire Turkey's Kurds and revive a 15-year war between Turkish troops and autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels.

U.S. envoy Khalilzad met with top Iraqi opposition leaders in Ankara Wednesday to discuss a post-Saddam interim administration. A joint statement after the talks said all sides agreed to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq _ a key Turkish demand.