Originally created 03/06/03

Top Turkish general backs deployment of U.S. troops



ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's powerful military chief said Wednesday that the army backed the deployment of U.S. troops in the country for a war in neighboring Iraq.

The statement by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok helped boost support for a proposal to introduce a new bill that would allow deployment of U.S. troops, said Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, a deputy chairman of the governing Justice and Development Party.

Ozkok stressed that the military respected parliament's rejection on Saturday of a motion to allow deployment of the U.S. troops.

But he said that allowing the United States open a northern front against Iraq would lead to a shorter war, minimize casualties and U.S. support would help Turkey with any economic fallout.

Ozkok's statement was likely to put more pressure on legislators to overturn their rejection of the bill.

The military is by far the most respected institution in Turkey and its views carry enormous weight among the public. Military officers have led three coups since 1960.

Many legislators said they voted against the bill because opinion polls showed that up to 94 percent of the public opposes a war in Iraq.

Turkey's top political leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated Tuesday that the government is planning to reintroduce the troop deployment bill to parliament and will press for its approval. Members of Erdogan's Justice party said they expect the bill to be resubmitted in two or three weeks.

"The conditions are changing fast," Firat said. "Many legislators are saying that they will cast a positive vote if the motion is brought to parliament again."

Ozkok said Turkey had received assurances from the United States regarding Turkey's security and financial concerns, adding that he hoped the issue would be solved in the coming days.

"The Turkish armed forces' view is the same as the government's," Ozkok said. "The war would be shorter, there would be less pain ... fewer people will die."

"Turkey is not capable of preventing the war on its own ... our choice is between bad and worse," Ozkok said.

Ozkok said the military had not made its views public earlier to avoid influencing parliament.

"If we had expressed our views, it would have amounted to pressuring the parliament for the approval of the resolution. It wouldn't have been democratic," Ozkok said.

The United States has offered Turkey a $15 billion aid package if parliament approves the deployment of 62,000 troops.

Many Turks fear the country will lose that aid if it snubs the United States. Turkey also stands to lose a say in the future of northern Iraq if it does not back Washington.

Turkey - which fears a declaration of independence by Iraqi Kurds in the North could influence its own Kurdish minority - has said it plans to send troops into northern Iraq if there is a war to ensure stability in the area.

Ozkok issued a stern warning to Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who have warned of clashes with Turkish troops should they enter Iraq.

"I remind the Iraqi Kurdish leaders of our right to defend our national interests and wish they act in a measured and cooperative manner," Ozkok said. "Those who want to replace peace with conflict will bear the consequences and responsibility."

The northern front is a key part of Washington's strategy for an Iraq war, but it is unclear if Washington can wait for the delays. Ships carrying U.S. armor already are off southern Turkey and would have to be diverted to the Persian Gulf if Ankara does not approve the troop deployment.