The overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East visited Turkey’s capital Ankara on Tuesday, apparently hoping to narrow differences between the two NATO allies, especially when it comes to Iraq.

Scheduled to visit Turkey for two days, Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. Central Command commander, is to meet with top Turkish government and military officials about expanding U.S. operations at Incirlik Air Base in south-central Turkey, said a Turkish official who asked not to be identified.

That official said he had no details, but U.S. officials apparently want to fly cargo into Iraq from Incirlik, according to a story in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. In Iraq, deteriorating security has led U.S. officials to use air transportation rather than road convoys to move people and materiel.

Though operations there have been reduced dramatically since the U.S invaded Iraq in March 2003, the United States still is a tenant at Incirlik. The Air Force has based there “a limited number of KC-135 refueling aircraft that support the mobility air bridge for Operations Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom,” wrote Capt. Rickardo Bodden, spokesman for the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik, in an e-mail response to a Stars and Stripes query.

Bodden referred all other questions to U.S. European Command officials in Stuttgart, Germany, who in turn referred questions to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Abizaid’s meetings with Turkish officials “are behind closed doors … and I’m not privy to those meetings going on now,” said Cmdr. Nick Balice, a CENTCOM spokesman. Balice declined to disclose what issues Abizaid is discussing with Turkish officials.

“Since September 11th, our set of strategic interests has shifted somewhat and it’s going to be some time before that sorts itself out,” Abizaid said in a Tuesday news conference, acknowledging growing differences between Turkey and the United Kingdom. “I don’t think that that’s surprising, but the U.S. and Turkey are working together very closely in a variety of areas.”

There may be some quid pro quo involved for both countries to get what they want.

U.S. officials want increased access to Incirlik in southeastern Turkey, about 400 miles west of the Iraq border, the Turkish source said. The Turks, still fighting Kurdish separatists in the southeast, want the United States to push fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, out of northern Iraq, he said.

Abizaid demurred, saying the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq are the first priority for U.S. forces, according to the Turkish source.

During his two-day visit, Abizaid is to meet Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Bashbu and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül of the Justice and Development Party, a conservative, Islamic-oriented party that has ruled secular Turkey since 2002.

The United States has had access to a limited number of Turkish bases and intelligence facilities since 1952, when Turkey joined NATO. From the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 through 2003, the United States and Britain used Incirlik and an air force base in Diyarbakir — near the Iraq border — to fly Operation Northern Watch missions over northern Iraq. Those missions stopped then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from harassing minorities in the north, including the Kurds, while providing Turkey intelligence on Kurdish militant groups.

Even at the height of Northern Watch, when an average of 5,000 Americans were based at Incirlik, Turkish military officials placed strict limits on what they did.

Levent Uransel in Ankara contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now