Without Turkish Bases, U.S. Military Mission Would Be Riskier
WASHINGTON – Without Turkish bases to open a northern front against Iraq, the U.S. military still could take Baghdad, but with more difficulty and risk, officials and analysts said Sunday.
The U.S. war plan calls for attacks on Iraq from two directions, Kuwait in the south and Turkey in the north. That approach would complicate Iraq's defense planning and ease U.S. logistical problems.
In a weekend move that surprised U.S. officials, however, the Turkish Parliament rejected a motion that would have granted a U.S. request to position tens of thousands of ground forces for the assault into northern Iraq and to station about 200 additional strike aircraft at two other bases.
Defense officials, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, said Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command a U.S. war in Iraq, had not yet decided to give up on Turkey. Franks said in an Associated Press interview last week that his war plans are flexible and take into account such problems.
If Turkish bases were not available to U.S. ground forces, Franks could opt to airlift a force into northern Iraq from Kuwait or elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. Instead of having the Army's 4th Infantry Division -- a heavily armored force -- roll into northern Iraq from Turkey, Franks might choose to use the 101st Airborne Division, a lighter, air mobile force.
It was not clear whether that was Turkey's last word on the matter. Reconsideration could come as early as Tuesday, but the head of Turkey's ruling party said Sunday there are no plans in the "foreseeable future" to seek another parliamentary vote.
Still, a senior U.S. official said the administration was evaluating the situation but did not regard the vote as necessarily final.
Several senators were less sanguine on the Sunday television talk shows.
"It's a huge setback for our purposes. It stunned me," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We spent the last 50 years defending them in NATO. And along comes this opportunity, and by three votes they decline the opportunity to allow us to come in through the north."
Securing the peace once President Saddam Hussein's government had fallen also would be more problematic without Turkey, depending on the extent of the Turkish military's move into Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, said analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We can work around it, but it does increase risk" before, during and after the fighting, Cordesman said.
Likewise, the Kuwait option for northern Iraq is not without risks.
"Our line of advance becomes more predictable" if the main ground assault is from Kuwait rather than being split between Kuwait and Turkey, Cordesman said. It also concentrates the bulk of U.S. ground forces in a relatively small area -- northern Kuwait -- and gives Saddam added incentive to attempt a pre-emptive strike with chemical or biological weapons, Cordesman said.
The United States has attempted in recent days to guard against such a strike by bombing Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems and artillery within range of Kuwait.
Another complication, if additional Turkish air bases are not available, is finding suitable basing for the 200 or more U.S. warplanes that Franks wanted at the Diyarbakir and Batman bases in southeastern Turkey. Cordesman said bases in the Gulf already are saturated with hundreds of American and allied fighters, bombers and support aircraft.
U.S. and British planes already fly patrols over northern Iraq from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. That presumably would remain available even if no other air or army bases are opened to U.S. forces.
The north of Iraq is important in Franks' war planning for several reasons. It features the anti-government Kurds, including factions that have been fighting with Turkey for years. It also contains major oil fields that Franks wants to secure and control at the earliest stages of an invasion.
"It will not fundamentally affect our ability to succeed militarily, but it will alter our ability to be, in effect, interspersed and be the interlocutors between the Kurds and the Turks," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That, he said on "Fox News Sunday," "worries me a great deal in the north about the day after, the week after, the year after, the decade after" Saddam is gone.
Retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "instability in the north is something that is very bad for Turkey, and I believe the best way to keep the instability from occurring is to have U.S. forces on the ground in northern Iraq."
The most pressing decision for Franks, in consultation with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other administration officials, is whether to abandon the plan to position the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey.
The Fort Hood, Texas-based division's tanks and other weaponry and supplies are aboard more than three dozen ships waiting off the coast of Turkey. The soldiers remain at Fort Hood. If they cannot go to Turkey, they most likely would be flown to Kuwait.