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U.S. general meets with Turkish officials


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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Monday called Turkey a "very cooperative partner" in U.S. policy toward Iraq.

"I would not agree that the United States government has conveyed to the Turkish government impatience," Myers told reporters. "I'm leaving here with a sense that Turkey will continue to be a very important, strategic partner for the United States."

President Bush has threatened military action against Iraq if it refuses to abide by United Nations resolutions calling for it to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad has repeatedly denied possessing such weapons -- chemical, nuclear or biological.

The United States has sought the use of Turkish airspace, air bases, airports and seaports in the event of war with Iraq and has asked to station some 80,000 U.S. troops in the country.

But there has been concern in the United States that Turkey, which provided staging areas for attacks on Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, is not an eager participant on the current Iraq issue.

Turkey does not favor such a large force, but it possibly would allow some troops to be based there.

"We're going to work through the many issues that we have," Myers said.

Turkey's government is juggling the need to assist the United States, its longtime NATO ally, and protect itself from the economic and social problems that would result from a war. A party with deep Islamic roots won control of parliament in November elections.

But Myers characterized discussions with Turkey officials as "very good" and "very frank and open."

Myers said the United States has been deploying forces in the region to help reinforce diplomatic efforts "to convince the Iraqi regime of our resolve" that it must heed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 and disarm.

"Nobody wants conflict," Myers said. "Diplomacy is the preferred alternative." But he said that "it's up to Iraq" as to whether there will be conflict.

"There is no decision by the president of the United States that conflict is inevitable," he said.

Myers was in Turkey for two days of talks and left Monday. On Sunday, he visited U.S. troops at Turkey's Incirlik Air Base, home to units that patrol the northern no-fly zone in Iraq.

Turkey, despite being a member of NATO and a staunch ally of the United States during the Persian Gulf War, has sought to distance itself from President Bush's push for action against Iraq. Turkish diplomatic sources say there is "a sharp difference of opinion" with the United States on the issue.

Given its common border with Iraq, Turkey could be a vital staging post to the region and base for U.S. operations in northern Iraq. 

Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, was a critical post during the Cold War and Gulf War, and is home to the U.S. Air Force's 39th Air Expeditionary Wing.

The base is also the home of Operation Northern Watch, in which U.S. and British aircraft patrol the 'no-fly' zone over Iraq north of the 36th parallel.

He praised the troops for their readiness and their sacrifices, and outlined the importance of Turkey's relationship with the United States.

Last week, a spokesman for President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said Turkey's contribution to any military action in Iraq would be limited by its historic ties to its neighbor.

Tacan Ildem, Sezer's chief adviser for foreign affairs, also said his country's parliament would be unlikely to back a military action without a new U.N. resolution authorizing war.

"For some of the wishes of the U.S., we need to have a parliament decision," he said after a meeting of Turkey's leadership.

"The contribution Turkey could consider giving to a probable operation would be limited because of its historic ties to a neighbor [Iraq] and Turkey's status in the region.

"Parliament will be having difficulty making a decision in the absence of a second ruling for the start of an operation," Ildem said.

Last week, Turkey invited ministers from five countries -- Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- to attend a meeting in Ankara to discuss ways to peacefully resolve the Iraq crisis, according to Turkey's Foreign Ministry.

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