ANKARA, Turkey – A top U.S. official said Wednesday that Iraq is "surrounded" and that Washington is looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Turkish bases that could be used in a war against the country.
The use of Turkish bases would give the United States, which already has troops in the Persian Gulf to the south of Iraq, the chance to send warplanes or soldiers to attack from the north.
Wolfowitz cautioned that no formal agreement had been reached to position U.S. troops in Turkey but said he was confident of Turkish support.
"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," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.
He spoke a day after meeting with Turkish leaders including Prime Minister Abdullah Gul.
Turkish officials have expressed reluctance about hosting large numbers of U.S. troops.
The leadership said Wednesday that the "government hasn't made a final political decision on these matters and has not entered under any obligation." The statement added that any such agreement would need parliamentary approval.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his country would let the United States use military bases. But a few hours after Yakis spoke, the Foreign Ministry clarified that he was speaking of "possibilities" and not promises.
Yakis also said that Turkey would have trouble supporting a large presence of U.S. ground troops in the country.
Wolfowitz said that U.S. and Turkish officials were looking at which bases could be used and which U.S. forces might be sent to Turkey if there were a conflict. Turkey borders Iraq and already is home to some 50 U.S. aircraft that patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq.
"We have an agreement to move forward with concrete measures of military planning and preparations," Wolfowitz said.
"I am 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," he added.
Wolfowitz said that President Bush has invited Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party to Washington for talks on a possible U.S. military operation against Iraq.
"We are talking potentially about tens of millions, probably several hundred million dollars of investment in several facilities that we might use," he said, declining to give details about which bases might be used.
U.S. F-15 and F-16 warplanes are based at Incirlik, an air base built during the Cold War that is about an hourlong flight from northern Iraq.
The base has extensive facilities, including bombproof steel and concrete shelters for fighter planes and underground command centers. The base also has an underground hospital with filters that clear the air of chemical or biological weapons or radioactive particles.
Turkey has numerous other bases throughout the country, including one near the Iraqi border that apparently is used by U.S. commandos who move close to the border during no-fly zone patrols in case a pilot needs to be rescued.
"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.
Wolfowitz said that having U.S. forces in northern Iraq would be in Turkey's interest during a conflict and in the aftermath.
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."
Yakis earlier said that Turkey would want U.N. approval of any military action before granting the use of its bases.
Wolfowitz said that the issue of U.N. approval was one that was being discussed by the two governments.