ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – The United States is withdrawing warplanes from a Turkish air base that have been used for patrols over northern Iraq and sending them to the Persian Gulf for the war, U.S. officials said yesterday, a sign of the growing distance between Washington and Ankara.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is to meet with Turkish officials today in an effort to repair the fractured relationship, which has left Washington alienated from NATO’s only Muslim member at a time when the United States is desperate for support in the Muslim world.
Some U.S. officials are questioning the usefulness of Turkey as an ally and point to the country’s refusal to allow in U.S. ground troops to open a northern front against Iraq, a strategy that both sides agreed would lead to a shorter, less bloody war.
Washington began pulling some 50 warplanes out of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey after it became clear that Turkey would not allow them to be used in an Iraq war. The planes had patrolled northern Iraq since after the 1991 Gulf War.
“The U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership … has been severely damaged and it needs repair,” said Sami Kohen, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper.
The withdrawal of the warplanes – F-15s, F-16s, EA-6Bs and AWACs radar aircraft – had been widely expected after Turkey said the base could not be used in a war.
The withdrawals began last week and are expected to continue until later this week, Maj. Bob Thompson, a spokesman at Incirlik, said yesterday. He would not be more specific for security reasons.
Thompson said some of the aircraft would be moved to the Persian Gulf, while others would be sent to their home bases.
The 1,400 U.S. personnel who worked on the Iraq patrols will be withdrawn from the base.
A similar number will remain; they are part of a permanent deployment that dates back to the Cold War whose work now includes logistics for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Turkey is also angry at the United States.
Ankara officials speak bitterly about how Washington took them for granted and did not realize how sensitive basing 62,000 U.S. ground troops in Turkey would have been to a Turkish public overwhelmingly against war.
They also angrily point out that the United States has called for democracy in Iraq, but now complains of being rebuffed after Turkey’s parliament voted freely against allowing in U.S. troops.
This weekend, Turkish villagers hurled eggs at U.S. soldiers retrieving parts of a coalition missile fired over Turkey toward Iraq that fell near a village.
“Turkish anger is growing,” the Turkish Daily News said in an editorial headline.
Powell “should at least try and put a brake on the deterioration of relations,” said Kohen, the Milliyet columnist. “It’s a downhill trend.”
The spiral has huge costs for both sides.
Turkey borders Iraq and its support will be crucial in the postwar period. It already has agreed to allow the United States to use its airspace during the Iraq war. Turkey also has close ties with Israel, and Washington often showcases it as an example of an overwhelmingly Muslim country that is secular, democratic and Western.
Both sides seem to realize they cannot afford cold relations.
“We need each other,” Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told The Associated Press last week. “We will talk. We will cooperate.”
President Bush last week asked Congress for $1 billion in aid to Turkey.
“In the long run … mutual interests may force the two sides to get together again,” Kohen said. “I don’t think the strategic partnership is in the waste basket.”
But in a sign of strain, two top U.S. congressmen are asking that aid be tied to Turkey’s economic policies and its role as an ally.
For Turkey, the discord comes at a critical time.
Turkey fears Iraq could fall apart during the fighting, with Kurds in the north declaring an independent state. Turkey has said it will send troops into northern Iraq to stop a Kurdish state, which Ankara fears could inspire Turkish Kurdish rebels who have fought for autonomy in the southeast for 15 years.