Istanbul, Feb. 22 (Reuters): The US gave Turkey leeway to claim more financial aid up-front today, drawing its reluctant Nato ally closer to a deal to allow US troops to be based in Turkey for a possible attack on Iraq.
Washington is urgently awaiting a deal and Turkish parliamentary ratification so that shiploads of US military hardware, standing by off Mediterranean ports, can be unloaded.
US officials in Washington said progress had been made on a revised aid package which would give Turkey $6 billion, of which $1 billion would secure an immediate $10 billion loan.
Earlier proposed US packages envisaged spreading the aid over three years, whereas the latest version allows Ankara to take the cash up-front.
Turkish officials said the talks were not over and stressed agreement also hinged on pledges for the future of Iraq and details of how Turkish forces would operate alongside a US deployment expected to number tens of thousands of troops.
“There are certain openings in certain aspects of the political, economic and military areas...they are being evaluated,” one Turkish official said.
A US source said: “Things are going well. But there are a lot of details to be worked out.”
Turkey feels it was never properly compensated for damage it suffered because of the 1991 Gulf War and is determined to ensure its interests are protected this time.
Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Turkey’s “demands were not extreme or harsh”.
The prospect of war is deeply unpopular in Muslim Turkey and the AKP government has struggled to balance its opposition to war with loyalty to the United States.
The US aid is expected to be linked to Turkey’s adherence to a $16 billion International Monetary Fund loan package.
US officials say Turkey has also approached Washington about getting a short-term $10 billion bridge loan.
The US has also offered Turkey up to $1 billion worth of oil from regional allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but Ankara has been holding out for more, US officials say.
Ankara fears a war could jeopardise economic recovery, upset the region, raise the cost of oil and batter its tourism trade.
It also wants pledges that the United States will not allow Kurds in northern Iraq to set up their own state.
Ankara fears that could fuel separatism among Turkey's millions of Kurds.
The state-run Anatolian news agency said Ankara was demanding US promises to disarm Kurdish groups in northern Iraq as well as to allow Turkey a direct role in the administration of any post-war Iraq.
Turkish troops are expected to move into northern Iraq in large numbers in the event of war, but officials say they will be there to prevent humanitarian problems and will not fight.
Blair meets Pope
Pope John Paul today urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Washington's staunchest allies in the Iraq crisis, to make every effort “to avert the tragedy of war”.
During a private audience that lasted about 30 minutes, the Pope reiterated that “in the grave situation in Iraq, every effort to avoid new divisions in the world be made,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Blair, who is an Anglican, shook the Pope’s hand and sat next to him during their discussions. The 82yearold pontiff received Blair’s wife Cherie, a devout Catholic, and their children at the end of the audience, the Vatican said. Faced with strong opposition in Britain to US-led military action in Iraq, Blair became the latest of several world leaders to visit the pope to discuss the crisis.
The two men do not see eyetoeye on the issue of a potential war, but during his visit to Rome Blair has tried to stress common ground between them, saying the Pope is “reluctant to go to war except as a last resort. That is our position”. “I obviously know the views of the Pope and they are very clear,” he said .