Ankara/Baghdad, Feb. 18 (Reuters): US preparations for war with Iraq suffered a new setback today when Turkey dug in its heels in negotiations over its role as a launchpad for an invasion.
Washington, embroiled in a broader diplomatic battle at the UN over its war plans, indicated it had issued Ankara with an ultimatum and would do without it if necessary.
The White House also said it might propose a new UN resolution this week or next to try to break a deadlock at the Security Council over its stance that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction and may need to be disarmed by force soon.
Washington has said it is prepared to go ahead with military action without a resolution, but would rather have one. Close ally Saudi Arabia warned it that bypassing the UNwould make military action look like a “war of aggression”.
If Ankara continues to drag its feet, US military planners could go ahead without a northern front. But an assault on Iraq from Turkey would relieve a main invasion from the south and could shorten any war and reduce American casualties.
The New York Times said senior Bush officials were for the first time openly discussing what could go wrong both during an attack on Iraq and in the aftermath, including concerns that Baghdad could use human shields or explode oil fields.
Iraq’s fractious Opposition groups, some of whom have battled one another in the past, began a gathering in the northern Kurdish enclave to try to form a united front and claim a role in government if President Saddam Hussein is ousted.
In the latest sign of Baghdad increasing cooperation to try to avert war, UN weapons inspectors confirmed that a U-2 surveillance plane had flown its first mission over Iraq.
Iraq agreed allow to the U-2 and other overflights last week under intense pressure. It also agreed to allow private interviews with its scientists, although the inspectors said today new problems had arisen when many of the scientists insisted their statements must be recorded.
Iraqi concessions have deepened misgivings about military action among some European nations and made it more difficult for the US to win international backing for war.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the standoff with Turkey, which is demanding twice the $26 billion in economic aid offered by Washington to cushion its economy from the effects of a war, would end “one way or another rather soon”.
“We continue to work with Turkey as a friend. But it is decision time,” Fleischer said in Washington.
Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis said his government would ask parliament to open military facilities to US soldiers only when Washington met Turkish demands.
“When conditions are fulfilled we are prepared to present it in the shortest possible time,” Yakis said.
Amid a huge US and British build-up towards some 250,000 troops in the Gulf by early March for possible war against Iraq, the EU has been bitterly divided for a month, trading barbs and issuing rival statements and open letters.
EU leaders said an emergency summit today had helped them put their divisions behind them, but a new row broke out over a demand by French President Jacques Chirac for east European EU hopefuls to mute their backing for US policy.
Aircraft taking part in US-British patrols over “no-fly” zones in Iraq made their seventh strike in 10 days overnight.
Baghdad made a fresh attempt to avert an invasion by calling for an Arab boycott against the US.
“Arab countries must take the necessary measures to protect their dignity using the vast resources of this region, starting with oil, the world’s lifeblood, and the ports and airports of the region which are vital for global trade,” Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri told the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al Awsat. Arab nations have shown no sign of being prepared to take such steps, although they have voiced opposition to a conflict.
Hero Ueki, spokesman for the inspectors, today confirmed an Iraqi foreign ministry statement announcing the first U-2 overflight and indicated more flights were set soon.