ANKARA, Turkey – With Washington warning that time is running short, the United States and Turkey failed again Wednesday to agree on a plan to let U.S. forces deploy for a northern front against Iraq. The standoff came as U.S. ships loaded with tanks and other armor awaited orders in the Mediterranean.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul after a Turkish Cabinet meeting ended with no decision, and a top Turkish leader said there were no plans for parliament to take up the issue until at least next week.
The dispute does not alter a decision by NATO on Wednesday to deploy AWACS radar aircraft, Patriot missiles and chemical-biological response units to protect Turkey. NATO also ordered experts to report on how the alliance could assist Turkish civilians if there were an Iraqi attack, such as by repairing damaged water and power networks.
But Turkish support for an Iraq operation was in question, held up over demands for a reported $30 billion in loans and aid before Turkey will let U.S. soldiers deploy against neighboring Iraq.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's ruling party, said after a Cabinet meeting that there had been "no positive" outcome in negotiations with the United States.
At a Pentagon news conference Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he expects Turkish cooperation in the end.
"I suspect that in one way or another -- a variety of ways probably -- they'll end up cooperating in the event that force has to be used in Iraq, he said.
The negotiations with Turkey involve the stationing of ground forces. War planes are widely expected to be based in Turkey as they were during the 1991 Gulf War. Some 50 U.S. aircraft have long been in southern Turkey patrolling the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stressed the need for a quick decision by Ankara.
"There's not a lot of time left," Fleischer said. "There comes a moment when plans must be made, decisions must be made, and cannot stretch on indefinitely."
Asked if Turkey had been given a deadline, Powell said: "Time is moving, but I don't have a deadline I'd like to announce right now. ... We are waiting to hear back from the Turks."
Many analysts say the U.S.-Turkish talks are part of a delaying strategy by a Turkish government that feels trapped between the desires of its strongest ally and the wishes of the Turkish public, which is overwhelmingly against war.
Analysts have said that in the end, Turkey is almost certain to agree to at least some U.S. demands to preserve its friendship with the United States, whose support for Turkey in the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have been critical for Ankara.
But Erdogan appeared to bring that into question. Although not a member of parliament, Erdogan is regarded as the power behind the scenes in Turkey's ruling party.
"There are many countries which do not support the United States but which are friends" of the United States, Erdogan said. "Will [Washington] also cut relations with France, China, Russia as well?"
That raised the prospect that Turkey might be trying to push the United States to abandon plans to use Turkish bases, a move many analysts say could lead to a serious rift between Washington and NATO's only Muslim member.
The Turkish rebuff came as five U.S. ships filled with tanks and other vehicles for the U.S. 4th Infantry Division waited off the coast of the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun in the hopes of unloading their armor, a U.S. defense official said. Another 35 supply ships are on their way to the area.
Washington is demanding to know whether the ships should approach Turkey or turn south and head for the Persian Gulf.
Without access to more bases in Turkey, the U.S. military would have to abandon a central feature of its strategy for war against Iraq: using armored forces to open a northern front.
U.S. leaders say there still would be plenty of U.S. firepower in the region to defeat Iraq's military.
"It's doable," Rumsfeld said. "There are work-arounds." He declined to discuss any specifics.
But abandoning the Turkish option could have huge consequences.
U.S. generals were hoping to send 80,000 troops to Turkey who would storm into Iraq, dividing Saddam Hussein's army between the north and the south. That, U.S. and Turkish generals agree, would likely shorten any war.
Turkish foot-dragging could encourage Saddam into believing that he is not surrounded, U.S. officials say.
The high-stakes U.S.-Turkish talks reportedly centered on Turkey's demands for some $10 billion in grants and up to $20 billion in long-term loans.
Washington had originally offered $4 billion to $15 billion depending on the scope of the war, and has now reportedly raised the offer to a minimum of $7 billion in grants and debt forgiveness with additional money in loans.
When asked whether the U.S. proposal was a "final offer," Fleischer said: "I think that's a pretty good way to describe it."
Turkey's leaders brushed aside the offer.
Turkey's "demands have to be met," Erdogan said. "Only then can we put the authorization on the agenda. These demands are not being met, and Turkey is constantly being expected to make compromises."
NATO's decision to deploy AWACS radar aircraft, Patriot missile systems and chemical-biological response units to Turkey came two days after the end of a stalemate in the alliance over planning in case of war with Iraq.