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Turkey Backtracks on Approving U.S. Use of Bases

Turkey's foreign minister said Tuesday that his country would allow the United States to use military bases in the country for a strike against Iraq, but his ministry later said that his comments were not a firm commitment by Turkey.

Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis' statement came as U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in the country lobbying for Turkey's support of an operation against its neighbor, Iraq.

Yakis' comments were the firmest yet by Turkey on whether it would allow the use of its bases. But several hours after he spoke, the Foreign Ministry issued a clarification that he was speaking of "possibilities," not promises.

The apparent backtracking reflects the sensitivity of the Iraq issue here: The Turkish public is widely opposed to military action against Baghdad, but leaders feel they have little choice but to support a war if their close ally the United States pushes ahead with one.

"The fact that he has referred to these possibilities does not mean a commitment on the part of Turkey, because these possibilities have not been the subject of discussion with any country," the ministry said in a statement.

Turkish officials have previously refused to publicly commit as to whether they would allow the United States to use bases in a strike against Iraq.

Yakis said Turkey would allow the bases' use — but only if the United Nations approved military action.

"There should not be left any stone unturned before resorting to a military solution," Yakis told reporters. "But if it comes to that, then of course, we will cooperate with the United States because it's a big ally and we have excellent relations with the United States."

When asked by a reporter to define cooperation, Yakis said, "the opening of air space, first of all, and the utilization of facilities in Turkey."

"The military authorities of the two countries are consulting on the assumption that such a cooperation may be necessary one day," Yakis added.

Yakis' original comments were widely broadcast on Turkish media. The Foreign Ministry later issued its statement "in order to bring clarity to this news."

A possible war in Iraq is extremely unpopular in Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member. Many Turks fear that a war will devastate the lucrative tourism industry as Turkey is struggling to recover from its worst recession in decades.

The Turkish military, which wields tremendous political power, is fearful that a war might lead to the collapse of the central government in Iraq and lead Kurds living in an autonomous zone in the north to declare independence. That might encourage autonomy-seeking Turkish Kurds, who battled the army for 15 years, a fight that left 37,000 dead.

Turkey has repeatedly said any action in Iraq must have U.N. approval.

When asked if the United States would have to seek a new U.N. resolution to use force against Iraq, Yakis said: "Yes, yes, yes. The Turkish understanding (is) that the present resolution, 1441, does not allow automatic resorting to armed intervention."

The support of NATO ally Turkey is crucial to any war. Turkey hosts some 50 U.S. aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and was a key staging post for U.S. air raids against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Turkey, however, puts restrictions on aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone.

A Turkish military officer monitors all flights over the no-fly zone from Incirlik air base, sitting next to the U.S. and British officers who command the missions.

The Turkish military must also approve any strike in northern Iraq and must also approve the deployment of allied aircraft to the base and which weapons they use.

Although the United States is looking at the possibility of sending ground troops into northern Iraq, Yakis said Turkey would have trouble supporting a large U.S. military presence.

"It may be difficult to see tens of thousands of American forces being transported through Turkish territory into Iraq or being stationed or deployed somewhere in Turkey and their carrying out strikes inside Iraq," he said.

Wolfowitz did not answer directly earlier when asked if the United States had asked for permission to base U.S. troops in Turkey during a war.

"Military and diplomatic planning must proceed because Saddam Hussein must see that we are serious," he said.

The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, to the south of Iraq, has also been touted as a likely staging ground for any military action. Qatar has suggested it would likely accept any U.S. request to use a base there but has not said whether U.N. approval is a condition.

Yakis' statements follow intense lobbying by the United States to win Turkey's support and come just a week before a crucial EU summit in which Turkey is hoping to gain a date for starting EU membership talks. The United States has been pressing European states to agree to that request.