Cheney Offers Aid to Turkey for Peacekeeping Mission

Vice President Dick Cheney ended an 11-nation Mideast tour Wednesday by promising Turkey financial aid for peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

Cheney said he hoped Turkey would agree to lead the force, now being run by Britain. But he failed to win the key NATO ally's support for a tougher policy against neighbor Iraq.

Cheney wrapped up an 11-nation tour of the Middle East with his stop in Turkey, and was heading back to Washington later Wednesday.

He is due to report to President Bush on Thursday. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security assistant, plan to attend the White House meeting.

The uniform message Cheney received from Arab leaders with whom he discussed Iraq was to give diplomacy a chance, an Arab diplomat told The Associated Press in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to meet with a senior Iraqi official next month in New York about permitting U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq after a lapse of more than three years.

If Iraq rejects weapons inspections, the Bush administration would have a better case for military action, said the Arab official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also, the Arab League holds a pivotal next week in Beirut, Lebanon, and is expected to endorse a Middle East peace initiative by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Turkey has been asked to replace Britain next month in leading the international force in Kabul. But the Islamic nation has expressed reservations about the assignment, citing financial worries and lack of a clear exit strategy.

Cheney said he told Turkish leaders that the Bush administration was sending Congress a $228 million aid package to help Turkey defray peacekeeping costs.

He also said he assured Turkish leaders that the United States had limited plans for the force, and that it would remain in the vicinity of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

"We're not talking about expanding it to other areas," Cheney told reporters.

Cheney also promised to assist Turkey in its bid to become a member of the European Union.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit became the latest leader on Cheney's tour to criticize U.S. proposals to widen the war on terrorism to Baghdad. He suggested such strikes could hurt Turkey's tottering economy.

Still, Ecevit told reporters after the meeting that Cheney had "very clearly stated that there will be no military action against Iraq in the foreseeable future."

Cheney disputed that characterization of his remarks. "I said military action is not imminent. And that's what I've been saying at every stop."

Cheney made similar remarks Tuesday in Jerusalem. "There has been great press speculation about possible military action against Iraq. I have said repeatedly no such decision has been made," Cheney said at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Turkey was Cheney's final stop on a swing through the region to solicit support for the next phase in war on terror and to increase pressure on Iraq, which the United States accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction.

But his mission was dominated by the raging Israel-Palestinian violence.

On Tuesday, in Israel, Cheney said he would return to the region as early as next week to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat if a cease-fire is in place and if Arafat takes sufficient steps to rein in Palestinian terrorists.

The White House has decided that the meeting, if it occurs, will be in Egypt.

Turkey was a staging point for U.S. attacks during the 1991 Gulf War and U.S. planes continue to be based at Incirlik air base, from which they patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

Turkey has been urging the United States not to attack Iraq, saying it does not pose a current threat to its neighbors.

Turkish officials suggested that another conflict would wreak havoc on Turkey's fragile economy. Turkey claims it lost $30 billion in revenues after the Gulf War.

On his way out of Ankara, Cheney visited the mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.