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Turkey rejects U S troop plan

by Louis Meixler   AP

ANKARA, Turkey (March 1) - Turkey's parliament dealt a stunning blow to U.S. war planning Saturday by failing to approve a bill allowing in American combat troops to open a northern front against Iraq.

The decision was likely to seriously strain ties with Washington and marked a setback to U.S. efforts to show Saddam Hussein that he is surrounded and his neighbors support a U.S.-led coalition.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul hastily called a meeting with his top ministers. It was not immediately clear if his Islamic-influenced ruling Justice and Development party would resubmit the motion. ``We will assess all this,'' said Gul, looking shaken and angry.

The parliament vote was 264-250 in favor, with 19 abstentions. But speaker Bulent Arinc nullified the decision because it was four short of the simple majority required by the constitution. He then closed parliament until Tuesday.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson rushed to the Foreign Ministry after the vote.

``We had certainly hoped for a favorable decision,'' he said. ``We will wait for further information and advice from the government of Turkey about how we should proceed.''

Turkish lawmakers had faced overwhelming public opposition to basing U.S. troops on Turkish soil. Yet Washington had been so sure of winning approval from close ally and NATO member Turkey, that ships carrying U.S. tanks are waiting off Turkey's coast for deployment and the U.S. military has thousands of tons of military equipment ready to unload at the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun.

For weeks, the Bush administration had been pressing Turkey to agree to a possible northern front, which would split Saddam Hussein's army between the north and the south, likely making a war shorter and less bloody.

The motion would have empowered Turkey's government to authorize the basing of up to 62,000 troops, 255 warplanes and 65 helicopters. In exchange, Washington promised $15 billion in loans and grants to cushion the Turkish economy from the impact of war.

Besides that funding, Turkey also risks losing Washington's support which was crucial in securing billions in loans that rescued the country during an economic crisis in 2001.

The United States has also pushed Turkey's eagerly sought candidacy in the European Union. And if Turkey does not agree to host U.S. forces, it loses a say in the future of neighboring Iraq if there is a war.

That is a critical issue for Turkey, which fears that a war could lead Kurds in northern Iraq to declare an independent state and in turn inspire Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

Nonetheless, Turkey's governing party had difficulty selling the unpopular measure to the Turkish people and could not push through the motion despite its overwhelming majority in parliament.

Polls show as much as 94 percent of the Muslim-dominated Turkish public opposes a war with Iraq. Before the vote, 50,000 Turks staged an anti-war rally near parliament as 4,000 police stood guard. They chanted ``No to War'' and ``We don't want to be America's soldiers.'' Some carried banners that read: ``The people will stop this war.''

After the speaker nullified the vote, hundreds of Turks celebrated in the streets of central Ankara, shouting anti-U.S. slogans.

``We are all Iraqis ... We will not kill, we will not die,'' they chanted. They also accused the Islamic-rooted Justice party of ``collaborating'' with Washington.

The Justice party was planning to meet Sunday, said Reha Denemec, the party's deputy chairman. ``We did not expect these results, but this is a democracy,'' he said.

03/01/03 15:59 EST

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