ANKARA, Turkey – U.S. officials are looking at investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Turkish military bases that could be used in case of war, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Wednesday.
Wolfowitz cautioned that no formal agreement had been reached to position U.S. troops in Turkey, addressing conflicting comments Tuesday by Turkish officials on whether American forces could use the bases. Turkish officials also expressed reluctance to host large numbers of U.S. troops.
"We have an agreement to move forward with concrete measures of military planning and preparations," Wolfowitz told reporters in Ankara.
U.S. and Turkish officials were working out which bases could be used and which U.S. forces might be sent to Turkey if there were a conflict, he said.
Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, borders Iraq and is already home to some 50 U.S. aircraft that patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq. Its support is seen as crucial to any U.S. move against Baghdad.
Wolfowitz said that President Bush has invited Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, which has Islamic roots, to Washington for talks on a possible U.S. military operation against Iraq.
Wolfowitz said he was "quite confident that we will in fact have a significant level of Turkish participation. Exactly how much is something that we are working on these days."
"We are talking potentially about tens of millions, probably several hundred million dollars of investment in several facilities that we might use," he said.
Wolfowitz's statement comes a day after Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his country would allow the United States to use military bases. But a few hours after Yakis spoke, the Foreign Ministry clarified that he was speaking of "possibilities," not promises.
"Let me make clear," Wolfowitz said when asked about the Turkish statements. "There isn't a firm American request."
He said that discussions on which bases would be needed "will bring us hopefully fairly quickly to the next level of discussions and decisions. Until we are at that point we are still talking ... very theoretically."
"It was said at all levels of the government that we spoke to that Turkey has been with us always in the past. They will be with us now," Wolfowitz said. "Turkish support is assured and I think that it is a very strong message to Saddam Hussein and the regime in Baghdad that Iraq is surrounded by the international community."
In addition to Incirlik air base, which U.S. aircraft now use to patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq, Turkey has helicopter bases near the Iraqi border and another main air force base in the center of the country, a little more than an hour's flying time from Iraq.
"We are close, but not yet exactly at the point of saying which bases we would use," Wolfowitz said.
Yakis said Tuesday that Turkey would have trouble supporting a large presence of U.S. ground troops in the country.
"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.
When asked about the use of ground troops based in Turkey, Wolfowitz said that it would be in Turkey's interest if the United States had forces in northern Iraq during a conflict. Turkey fears that Kurds in northern Iraq could declare independence if the Iraqi government collapses. That could encourage autonomy-seeking Turkish Kurds in Turkey's own southeast.
"It is strongly our position ... that Turkey will be better off if we are there to help manage what comes afterward," Wolfowitz said.
But he added that "I think we are quite comfortable with what we can do from the south."
If there is a war in Iraq, any major U.S. thrust would be expected to come from the south.
Yakis also specified that Turkey would want U.N. approval of any military action before granting the use of its bases.
When asked if the United States would have to seek a new U.N. resolution to use force against Iraq, Yakis said Tuesday: "Yes, yes, yes."
Wolfowitz said that the issue of U.N. approval was one that was being discussed by the two governments.
"It is an important question and it is one that we need to clarify at the highest levels of both governments," Wolfowitz said.