Pentagon Abandons Turkey Deployment Plan

ROBERT BURNSB
AP Military Writer

WASHINGTON – After weeks of waiting off Turkey’s coast, dozens of U.S. ships carrying weaponry for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division have been redirected to the Persian Gulf, two U.S. defense officials said Saturday.

The decision ends U.S. hopes of using Turkish bases to move heavy armored forces into northern Iraq (news – web sites), where Bush administration officials fear conflict between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurds.

About 40 ships carrying the division’s weaponry and equipment were to begin moving through the Suez Canal on Sunday, one of the officials said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.

The 4th Infantry’s soldiers, who remained at Fort Hood, Texas, after their weaponry and equipment went to the Mediterranean last month, are likely to go to Kuwait, the officials said.

It also was possible that they could enter Iraq directly through the Gulf port of Umm Qasr, now under the control of British and U.S. Marines after clashes Friday with Iraqi forces.

At Fort Hood, officials said lead elements of the division are expected to begin moving early next week. Officers greeted the decision with relief.

“At last, a decision’s been made — the speculation’s over, the waiting is over, the wondering is over,” said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a public affairs officer. “Now it’s time to go do our jobs.”

Aberle said it was too early to say where the troops will go and what their role will be.

The original plan had the entire division of about 17,500 soldiers heading to Turkey, along with some Army troops based in Germany. It was not immediately clear if the full division would go to Kuwait.

The redirected cargo ships are to begin arriving off the coast of Kuwait about March 30, one official said. All the ships would arrive by about April 10.

From Kuwait they could move into Iraq to serve as reinforcements if the ground war lasts more than several weeks, or as occupation forces after the Iraqi government’s collapse.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, it appeared Saturday that one of Saddam Hussein (news – web sites)’s chief enforcers, Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti, was in command of the Iraqi military and security forces in a large portion of southeastern Iraq. Ali Hassan is known to his enemies as “Chemical Ali” for leading a campaign against rebellious Kurds in the 1980s that used chemical weapons to kill thousands.

The administration has said it wants to try Ali Hassan for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The Army already had hundreds of troops into southern Turkey to facilitate the possible use of bases there as a staging area for the 4th Infantry, but Turkey’s parliament refused to grant access.

Turkey also has been off-limits so far for U.S. aircraft flying missions into Iraq from aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean, officials said Saturday.

As an alternative for securing northern Iraq with the tanks and other heavy armor of the 4th Infantry, U.S. special operations forces are now in the area and other conventional forces may join them, officials have said.

Northern Iraq is a particularly sensitive area because of the autonomous Kurdish region and the potential for Kurdish conflict with Turkish forces.

There were reports Friday that Turkish soldiers in armored personnel carriers had rolled into northern Iraq near where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran converge. But the Turkish military on Saturday denied it. The reports had said 1,000 Turkish commandos had crossed the border.

The United States has no evidence of Turkish movements or new any new incursions in northern Iraq, a senior Bush administration official said.

On several fronts Saturday, U.S. troops kept up their push into Iraq, bolstered by the surrender of thousands of Iraqi forces, including an entire army division. Neighboring Iran protested over strikes on Iranian territory by at least three U.S. missiles.

The State Department assured Iran, in a message sent through Swiss intermediaries, that the United States was investigating. Spokesman Philip Reeker offered public assurances that the United States respects Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division surged more than 100 miles across the desert toward the capital of Baghdad, U.S. and British Marines closed in on Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The battle for Basra, a strategic oil hub of 1.3 million people that is about three dozen miles from Iraq’s southern border with Kuwait, got a boost Friday when the main Iraqi army division guarding the city surrendered from its top leaders down.

Iraq’s 51st Infantry Division (Mechanized), comprising some 8,000 soldiers and about 200 tanks, was regarded as one of the better units in Saddam Hussein’s regular military, though it was not part of the more elite Republican Guard.

An Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad who declined to give his name said Pentagon (news – web sites) claims the 51st Division had surrendered were untrue.

Far to the north, the United States used five missiles to attack positions of Ansar al-Islam, a radical group linked to al-Qaida, which controls a small enclave within semiautonomous Kurdish regions.