ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's parliament voted Thursday to allow U.S. troops to renovate Turkish bases for use in a possible war with Iraq, after Turkey's premier warned that his country may have no choice but to support Washington if there is a conflict.
Some 3,500 U.S. soldiers are expected to arrive in Turkey shortly to begin fixing up bases that U.S. troops could use to open a northern front against Iraq, effectively dividing the Iraqi army between its northern border with Turkey and the Persian Gulf in the south.
U.S. officials have maintained that a northern front would lead to a quicker war. Those officials have relentlessly pressed Turkish leaders to back the war plans.
The 308-193 parliamentary vote in the Turkish capital, Ankara, came after weeks of delays by leaders who said that all options for peace should be exhausted before committing to war.
"Faced with a rising possibility of a war nearby, we are just taking measures to protect our national interests," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party said after the vote.
A second vote on whether to allow U.S. combat troops in Turkey is expected on Feb. 18, after a nine-day recess for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. A senior party official said he expected that measure to pass easily.
Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told party legislators before the vote that Turkey was trying to "gain time for peace" by delaying the approval of U.S. troops, NTV television reported.
Turks overwhelmingly oppose a U.S.-led war against Iraq and legislators from the newly elected party fear alienating the public by supporting the United States.
But they also fear that rebuffing the United States could be a disaster for Turkey, which counts on Washington for political and economic backing. Washington was key in helping Turkey gain international funding to rescue its economy from its financial crisis in 2001.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed the decision.
"Turkey is a stalwart friend and a staunch NATO ally." Fleischer said. "The Turkish government is facing up to difficult issues."
Turkish leaders are also worried that if they do not back Washington in Iraq, they will lose any say in the future of the neighboring country.
Gul said Turkish soldiers would not fight in an Iraq war. "Turkey will not enter the war," he said.
Gul spoke to Turkish reporters Wednesday to explain his government's acceptance of the base renovations.
"We have to think about our national interests," the Hurriyet newspaper quoted him as saying. "Whatever Turkey's interests require is what we're going to do. From today on, I think we're going to have to act together with our strategic partner, the United States."
But in a sign of possible future opposition, Erdogan said U.S. actions must be approved by the United Nations. President Bush has repeatedly said that the United States will force Iraq to disarm whether or not the United Nations backs the action.
"Every step that the United States takes must be within the U.N. framework," Erdogan said.
The United States is planning to spend several hundred million dollars to modernize Turkish bases.
John Taylor, U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs, arrived in Turkey late Thursday for talks on the economic package, which would cushion the country from the impact of any war. The package would range between $4 billion and $15 billion, depending on the length of the war and its economic impact.
Turkey, which maintains several thousand troops in northern Iraq, is expected to move tens of thousands of additional troops into northern Iraq if there is a new war.
Turks have said that this would maintain stability and prevent a flood of refugees but many analysts believe that the main aim would be to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq if the central government collapses.
Turkey fought a 15-year guerrilla war with Kurdish rebels and fears that a Kurdish state on its border would encourage the rebels.