ISKENDERUN, Turkey — Marine Gen. James Jones, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said he is waiting a few days to “see how diplomatic differences resolve themselves” in Turkey before giving up on an option of assaulting Iraq through northern Turkey in the event of war.

With U.S. war planners eager to begin any invasion before searing heat turns the Iraqi desert into a blast furnace, time is running out.

U.S. officials are waiting to see whether Turkish leaders can regroup in time — and before U.S. patience also runs out — to push through parliament approval for positioning about 60,000 American troops, 255 jets and 65 helicopters for an invasion of northern Iraq.

One of the most pivotal decisions is when to give up on the Turkish ground option and to shift forces south to bolster units already assembling in Kuwait, Jones said in a briefing Monday at his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

Defense officials, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, said Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command a U.S. war in Iraq, had not decided to give up on Turkey. Franks told The Associated Press last week that his war plans are flexible and take into account such problems.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday the United States would prevail in a conflict with Iraq, regardless of whether Turkey cooperates.

Turkey fears that if it does not allow U.S. troops it could lose a $15 billion package in grants and loans promised by Washington to compensate it for any losses incurred in war. Fleischer said that “no final judgments have been made” about the package.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul refused to say Monday whether his government would resubmit to parliament the resolution to authorize the U.S. deployment ahead of a possible war in Iraq. Gul will be in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and Wednesday for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference, likely delaying any vote at least until Thursday.

Meanwhile, a fleet of more than 40 cargo vessels carrying tanks, fighting vehicles and other hardware from the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division is stacking up in the Mediterranean. It would take about a week for those ships to instead transit the Suez Canal and steam around the Arabian peninsula before they could begin unloading in Kuwait’s already tightly squeezed ports, say military officials.

Some 3,500 U.S. troops — many of them from the Germany-based 1st Infantry Division and 21st Theater Support Command — already are in Turkey to lay the groundwork for a U.S. invasion force.

It’s unclear whether those support troops already here would be reassigned to help out in Kuwait or simply return to Germany.

From the air

Another key consideration is whether Turkish officials will permit U.S. warplanes already based in Turkey to be used in an all-out assault against Iraq.

If the door is closed to heavy armored units rolling through Turkey into northern Iraq, lighter airborne units such as the Italy-based Southern European Task Force could be used to seize airfields to open an air bridge into the region.

Reports have also pointed to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) using its massive fleet of helicopters to repeat its 1991 Gulf War “left hook” deep into Iraq with an even longer-range sweep into the north.

In either case, airpower would play a critical role in protecting and assisting those troops. More than 50 warplanes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey currently are patrolling Iraq’s northern no-fly zone as part of Operation Northern Watch, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Bob Thompson.

“In order for us to do anything other than ONW, we’d have to have a change of mission,” Thompson said. “For that to happen it would take an order from our president and coordination with our allies. And since Turkey is our host, they would have a lot to say about that.”

While Turkey allowed use of its bases for the U.S air war during the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, Turkish officials said no during more recent campaigns such as the 1996 air blitz dubbed Operation Desert Strike as well as Operation Desert Fox in late 1998.

“If Turkish air bases are going to be used for the conduct of actual combat operations, another vote in parliament would be required to approve that,” said Ilter Turan, professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

“That is going to be a difficult question for the Turkish authorities,” added retired Turkish aviator Maj. Gen. Riza Kucukoglu. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force War College, Kucukoglu said it’s one thing for officials to allow the regular airstrikes that take place under Operation Northern Watch, “but quite another to allow a major air war.”

“Maybe they would just turn a blind eye and pretend not to see, but it is very possible that another vote would be required,” Kucukoglu said.

The same sensitivities could even complicate the use of carrier-based warplanes passing over Turkey into Iraq.

Another option, said one senior Pentagon official, is to shift the fleet south off the coast of Israel to move strikes through an air corridor across Jordan.

That option is problematic given the Arab-Israeli tensions, he said.

From the sea

The carrier Theodore Roosevelt has recently joined fellow big deck Harry S. Truman in the eastern Mediterranean, said 6th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Bob Ross. That puts about 100 Navy strike fighters in range of Iraq.

With question marks over Turkey, Ross said, “a key issue for us is tanker support.”

Officials had been hoping to base air-to-air refuelers in eastern Turkey to gas up attack aircraft just before crossing into Iraq. The tactic allows longer loiter times and deeper ranges for strike missions.

“We do have other options open,” said Ross, “and we are exploring them now.”

Meanwhile, carrier pilots are getting familiarized with the skies over northern Iraq. Pilots from the Truman have been integrated into Operation Northern Watch during recent missions, Ross said.

At the same time, operations in Northern Watch have become more aggressive.

Pilots have been expanding their target lists to attack units that could be used against U.S. forces invading Iraq.

Last week, ONW fighters attacked long-range artillery launchers south of Mosul, in an unprecedented strike. Until then, only anti-aircraft sites and command and control centers had been targeted.

On Saturday, in another first, ONW units blanketed northern Iraq with 240,000 leaflets warning Iraqi troops that units threatening coalition forces will be “attacked and destroyed.”

— Contributing to this report: Stars and Stripes reporter David Josar and The Associated Press.

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