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Turkey's Erdogan to Wait Before Deciding on Troops

Governing party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who swept elections paving the way for him to become prime minister, said a decision on allowing in U.S. troops for an Iraq war could come after the Security Council has met and a new Turkish government is formed.

Erdogan -- a popular politician who already wields power behind the scenes -- has backed the deployment of troops and hinted that he would seek a fresh vote after parliament last week rejected a resolution allowing 62,000 U.S. troops that could open a northern front against Iraq.

But in an interview following his massive electoral victory in Sunday's by-elections, Erdogan appeared to be in no hurry to resubmit a motion on troop deployment.

He said Turkey was still seeking assurances from the United States on the role it might play in Iraq if Saddam Hussein is defeated.

Turkey, which fears Iraqi Kurds may declare independence in the aftermath of a war, has been pressing for a say in the future of Iraq.

"We have the U.N. Security Council before us, we have the process of forming a new government," Erdogan told a television station when asked about a new resolution. "We need to assess all these very carefully, and then we will take a decision."

"I cannot give a date. There are also steps that the United States has to take," he said.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party captured 84.7 percent of the votes in balloting in the southeastern town of Siirt, winning all three seats contested there. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul is expected to resign on Wednesday to make way for Erdogan.

The vote comes as the United States as ships carrying equipment for U.S. troops wait to unload off Turkey's coast.

U.S. diplomats have said Washington will ask for a U.N. vote on Tuesday on an ultimatum that would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm or face war. France opposes the resolution and many council members have expressed reservations.

Turks overwhelmingly oppose a war, and Erdogan appeared to be cautious about backing troop deployment so soon after his victory.

But snubbing the United States is a risk Turkey cannot afford to take. It would strain ties with Washington, lose a say in the future of neighboring Iraq and forfeit a $15 billion U.S. aid package offered to offset the effects of war on the frail economy.

Erdogan blamed parliament's rejection of troop deployment last week on pressure from Washington.

"On the issue of the motion, there was no need to act with such haste," he said. "The right atmosphere, environment needs to be created."

Analysts say however, that one of Erdogan's first moves as premier could be to sack ministers who have opposed troop deployment. Erdogan said he planned to make changes to the government.

"Yes, most certainly," he said when asked whether he would shuffle the Cabinet.

"We will meet with Mr. Gul ... to assess the performances (of the ministers) and take steps accordingly," he said.

Erdogan had been barred from running in November national elections because of a conviction for inciting religious hatred over a poem he read at a 1998 rally in Siirt, 60 miles north of the Iraqi border. He spent four months in prison in 1999.

He was able to run in Sunday's by-elections after Justice lawmakers changed the constitution.

"The abnormal situation has to return to normal," Erdogan said.

The Siirt by-elections were scheduled after Turkey's election board ruled that a ballot box there had been tampered with during the national vote.