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Pressure builds on Turkish leader

©Associated Press
March 15, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan took over as Turkey's prime minister Friday under intense pressure to allow in U.S. ground troops or at least open the country's airspace to American warplanes for attacks on Iraq.

Erdogan's rise to the top slot was a great personal victory for the head of the Islamic-rooted governing party, who just three years ago spent four months in jail for antisecular activity.

But he faces his first big test immediately: a decision about whether to back an unpopular war against Iraq or face the ire of the United States, Turkey's closest ally. Washington's patience is clearly beginning to run out.

President Bush called Erdogan this week, asking him to quickly open up Turkey's airspace to American warplanes. Vice President Dick Cheney also called the Turkish leader Thursday and Bush followed up with a letter.

The push for permission to use Turkish airspace could be a sign that U.S. officials are losing hope that Turkey will let in ground troops.

The troop deployment "is now a lower priority for the U.S. than the absolutely essential priority of the Turks saying yes to the air space," said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The United States wants to use the airspace to launch the first phase of the war, which would involve heavy bombing.

Earlier this month, Turkey's parliament rejected a government motion to authorize the deployment of 62,000 U.S. combat troops to open a northern front against Iraq. Erdogan has hinted he will ask parliament to reconsider, but he also has said Turkey needs more assurances from Washington on its own role in the future of Iraq.

He and other Turkish leaders have indicated they want to wait for a U.N. vote on a resolution backing the U.S. position on Iraq.

Erdogan said Friday he would not submit another motion on troop deployment before parliament approves his government, expected late next week.

"For the time being it is not on our agenda. All these issues will be dealt with after the vote of confidence," Erdogan told the Anatolia news agency.

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