ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's Cabinet agreed Monday to host tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops for a possible Iraq war, a crucial step in realizing an American strategy that calls for a two-front attack that would surround and divide the forces of Saddam Hussein.
Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said Turkish and U.S. officials are still negotiating the agreement and that a vote by parliament -- which could come as early as Tuesday -- could be delayed until the terms are finalized.
Washington has been pressing Turkey to approve the deployment. U.S. ships are waiting off the coast of Turkey to unload supplies for the 4th Infantry Division, which would lead an armored thrust from Turkey into northern Iraq if there is a war.
There was no immediate information on how many troops the Cabinet had agreed to allow into the country. Officials said that issue was being negotiated.
Turkey's public is overwhelmingly against a war and there has been strong opposition among legislators to allowing U.S. troops to use their territory to launch an attack.
However, the deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party, which has a large majority in parliament, said he expected parliamentary approval.
"There will not be a problem," legislator Reha Denemec told The Associated Press. "The government approves it."
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed the Cabinet's move.
"We're pleased by the actions taken by the government of Turkey to date," he said. "There are still some t's to be crossed and i's to be dotted."
A Western diplomat said talks between the two sides on the details of the agreement were expected to continue until late Monday and possibly early Tuesday.
"Negotiations (with the United States) to reach an agreement on the military, political and economic issues have reached an important stage," Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener said. "However, they are still continuing. But to have kept the process any longer would not have been very healthy, therefore it was decided to send the authorization to parliament today."
Sener said that many ministers had reservations, but "in the end, the ministers unanimously endorsed to send it to parliament."
The Cabinet motion calls on parliament to allow the deployment of U.S. troops and authorize Turkish soldiers to enter Iraq.
The negotiating deadlock was broken late last week, when Washington offered Turkey $5 billion in aid and $10 billion in loans to cushion the Turkish economy from the effects of war, diplomats said.
Washington wants to use Turkey to open a northern front in a war in Iraq, a strategy that would divide the Iraqi army between an armored attack in the north and a thrust from the Persian Gulf.
Tens of thousands of Turkish troops are expected to cross into northern Iraq if there is a war, a plan that is raising tensions with Iraqi Kurds who control an autonomous zone in the north of the country.
The Turkish military on Sunday and Monday increased its forces along the border, sending in more soldiers, artillery and armored personnel carriers.
Turkey fears that Iraq could fragment if there is a war, with Kurds declaring an independent state. That, Turks fears, could encourage Turkey's Kurdish minority.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party, a key Kurdish faction, on Monday protested the presence of Turkish military officers escorting more than 250 Turkish and foreign journalists into autonomous northern Iraq.
Six Turkish buses carrying the reporters and photographers, who were due to report an Iraqi opposition meeting in the town of Salahuddin, made a U-turn minutes after they departed the border town of Silopi, Turkey, for Iraq.
The crossing would have been the first time that Turkey allowed the press to cross into northern Iraq in almost two years. The KDP said in a statement that it did not prevent the buses from crossing.