Turkey's leader heads to Washington to seek economic support, convey concerns on Iraq

Monday, January 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit left for a five-day visit to the United States on Monday to reaffirm Turkey's strong support for Washington's anti-terror campaign and to seek U.S. financial help to foot the bill of a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

Turkey, a close U.S. ally, was the first Muslim country to support the campaign in Afghanistan with an offer of troops. But with the country still recovering from an economic crisis, Turkey will require U.S. funding if it is to take over the leadership of the Afghan peacekeeping mission.

Turkey has said it is sending 261 personnel and could send as many as 500 if it takes over the command from Britain in the spring as it has offered.

``Support for our defense expenditure in that region ... will be much appreciated,'' Ecevit said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the visit.

Ecevit is seeking to win relief for Turkish military debts totaling more than $5 billion and continued support for Turkey's request for some $10 billion in additional International Monetary Fund assistance.

Washington, which regards Turkey as an important strategic ally, has already backed some $19 billion of IMF loans for Ankara to support a series of market-oriented reforms for the country, which has experienced financial problems similar to Argentina's.

Turkey also has strong reservations about the anti-terrorism campaign expanding to neighboring Iraq _ a point Ecevit is to press when he meets President Bush in Washington on Wednesday.

Turkey fears that a renewed operation against Iraq could break up the country, create a separate Kurdish state and lead to a flare-up of its own 15-year old war against Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy from Turkey. Turkey is also concerned about the effects of a new war on its fragile economy.

Although Washington has said it has not made any decisions regarding Iraq, U.S. officials point out that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is maintaining programs to build weapons of mass destruction.

Turkey's Sabah newspaper said Monday that officials in Washington were expected to ask Ecevit to press Iraq to abide by U.N. resolutions and allow the return of weapons inspectors.

An Iraqi newspaper owned by Saddam's son Odai Hussein warned Turkey would suffer ``grave consequences'' if it helped a U.S. attack on the United States. The editorial in the Babil daily said Ankara and Washington were ``bargaining a price for Turkey to contribute to a U.S. aggression on Iraq.''

Ecevit was an ardent opponent of military strikes on Iraq during the Gulf War and maintained good relations with Hussein. Ecevit has since signaled that Turkey's main concern is Iraq's territorial integrity, not Hussein's survival.

Ecevit, accompanied by 129 businessmen, will seek trade privileges for Turkey similar to those the United States grants allies such as Jordan and Israel.

``We think it is necessary to develop our trade and economic relations in addition to our political relations, which have developed positively,'' Ecevit said before his departure.