ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey granted the U.S. military permission to use its airspace Thursday, a measure that makes it easier for U.S. bombers based in Europe to strike Iraq, and U.S. transport and supply aircraft to move troops and war materiel to the region.
But the step falls far short of Washington's original request to send 62,000 soldiers to Turkey to open up a northern front against Iraq that would divide the Iraqi army.
The measure also does not allow U.S. warplanes to use Turkish air bases or refuel in Turkey. That means the United States will not be able to use the 50 warplanes it has at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, which have been used to patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
Parliament voted 332-202 to grant permission for U.S. warplanes or transport aircraft to fly across Turkey, making it easier for strike aircraft on carriers in the Mediterranean to fly more directly into Iraq.
The resolution also authorizes Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq, a move U.S. officials had sought to discourage, fearing any unilateral entry could lead to friendly fire incidents or clashes with Iraqi Kurds.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the vote granting airspace rights, but said the United States remained "opposed to unilateral action by Turkey or by any party in northern Iraq."
Speaking after Thursday's vote, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "May it be good for our country and our people. The results are what we expected."
Asked when airspace would be opened, Erdogan said: "We will inform you about this later."
U.S. flights can start only after details of the overflights are worked out, which officials said could come as early as later Thursday but could take longer, depending on the demands.
The United States for months has been pressing Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, to allow in 62,000 soldiers to open a northern front against Iraq. But as the date for an Iraq war drew closer, Washington requested the urgent use of Turkish airspace for overflights.
Polls show Turks overwhelmingly oppose war, but political leaders feared seriously harming relations with the United States if they did not allow overflight rights.
Before Thursday's vote, Erdogan addressed his party, which has an overwhelming majority in parliament, and urged them to vote in favor of the airspace resolution.
"It is important that our party's unity is not disrupted," the Anatolia news agency quoted Erdogan as telling legislators.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer spoke out Thursday against the U.S. strikes against Iraq.
"I don't find the United States' unilateral behavior right before the U.N. process is completed," Sezer said.
Sezer, whose position is largely ceremonial, has long said any military action should have U.N. approval. He does not, however, have the power to veto the airspace resolution.
The United States had offered Turkey a package of $15 billion in loans and grants if it let in U.S. troops for a ground war. But the United States withdrew the aid package as war drew closer and it became clear that even if Turkey voted in favor, the U.S. army would not have time to bring in the army units.