ANKARA, Turkey - The Turkish parliament dealt a major setback yesterday to the Bush administration's plans for a northern front against Iraq, narrowly rejecting a measure that would have allowed thousands of U.S. combat troops to use the country as a base for an attack.
More Turkish lawmakers supported the measure than opposed it, but the resolution failed because the combined total number of no votes and abstentions exceeded the numbers of favorable votes. Under the Turkish constitution, a resolution can become law only if it is supported by a majority of the lawmakers present.
The final tally was 264 for, 251 opposed and 19 abstentions.
The defeat stunned U.S. officials, who had been confident that Turkey's leaders would be able to persuade the members of their party to support the measure. U.S. ships had begun unloading heavy equipment at Turkish ports in anticipation of a favorable vote, and more than a dozen vessels were idling off the coast.
In the turmoil after the parliamentary session, U.S. diplomats said they were requesting a "clarification" of the vote.
The vote yesterday followed weeks of negotiations between U.S. and Turkish officials, largely over the economic assistance for Turkey in the event of a war with Iraq.
The defeat posed immediate military problems for U.S. officials, who have been counting on Turkey's support to help with a northern front. A senior Pentagon official said yesterday that the U.S. military would be able to stage the operation without Turkey's help.
The defeat of the resolution was a stunning political blow. Turkey, one of the closest U.S. allies and a member of NATO, is a secular Muslim democracy whose support in the region the Bush administration has craved. U.S. officials have called Turkey a model for the type of system that they are hoping an invasion of Iraq will help bring about elsewhere in the Middle East.
The defeat was not expected by Turkey's leaders, who hours before the vote had predicted that the parliament would approve the measure. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and the chief of the governing Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had endorsed the measure, and both men had urged their party, which controls a large majority of the parliament, to support it.
The resolution failed in large part because nearly 100 members of the party apparently voted against the measure or abstained. The U.S. request had placed Turkey's leaders in a difficult situation, as polls here indicated that an overwhelming majority of Turks oppose their country's involvement in a war against Iraq.
In an interview after the vote, Gul said Turkey's democratic system had spoken with finality. "Turkey is the only democratic country in the region," he said. "The decision is clear. We have to respect this decision, as this is what democracy requires."
The vote cast a shadow over the U.S.-Turkish relationship, which Turkish officials said had come under great strain during the negotiations. As the discussions wore on and tales of U.S. highhandedness spread, Turkish lawmakers and the Turkish public appeared to become more and more alienated.
"The relationship is spoiled," said Murat Mercan, a member of parliament from the majority party. "The Americans dictated to us. It became a business negotiation, not something between friends. It disgusted me."
In Ankara, the U.S. Embassy said U.S. ties with Turkey would not be threatened by the parliamentary vote, calling it democratic and one that Washington would abide by. "We respect this as a democratic result - we will live with that," said an embassy spokesman. "We worked together as allies, and we will continue to work together as allies."
The Turkish vote throws into question the ambitious military strategy that had been devised to overwhelm the forces of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. U.S. military commanders wanted to begin an attack from Turkey to pin down Iraqi forces in the north, thus keeping them away from the main U.S. force driving from the south.
A senior Pentagon official said yesterday that the Turkish parliament's vote would not alter the military's plans to try to stage tanks and other heavy equipment for the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey into northern Iraq.
"I don't think it's that big a deal," the official said. "As [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld likes to say, democracies aren't very tidy."
'We'll be all right'
Even before the vote, U.S. officials signaled that they were confident that U.S. forces would probably be allowed to stage through Turkey. When asked Friday if the Pentagon was past the point where it needed a definitive answer from the Turks, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "No." Rumsfeld added, "We'll be all right."
Pentagon officials have said that Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, has backup plans for moving U.S. forces into northern Iraq. "General Franks, as we speak, is looking at lots of options," Myers said Friday.
It was unclear last night whether there was an immediate impetus for the resolution's defeat, but several issues were outstanding between the Turks and the Americans.
The main sticking point was the U.S. insistence that the Turks continue to adhere to a 2-year-old agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which has imposed strict conditions on Turkish lawmakers to reform their economy in exchange for billions of dollars in loans.
With the Americans promising $6 billion in direct aid, Turkish officials wanted to be able receive the money before reaching any new agreement with the fund. U.S. officials were worried that Turkey, armed with the U.S. cash, would walk away from the IMF, thus defeating the purpose of the U.S. aid, which was to maintain confidence in the Turkish economy in the event of war.
The United States has insisted that Turkey adhere to strict standards maintaining its creditworthiness.