Saddam misjudges Ankara's response

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S calculated provocations in northern Iraq have failed to break what he mistakenly saw as the weak link of the alliance ranged against him: the Turkish government.

In fact, the robust response by the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, may have the opposite effect, showing the Turkish leader's commitment to allied efforts to block Baghdad from ever triggering again the 1991 exodus of 2 million Iraqi Kurds to the mountains of Iran and Turkey.

Mr Demirel has repeatedly stated that President Saddam, not the allies, was responsible for confrontations between allied aircraft and more than 10 Iraqi air-defence emplacements in the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel.

'If (the missiles) had not been destroyed, the second step would have been a ground operation. There are 20 Iraqi divisions there. Anybody who tries the refugee option knows that he will get an answer from Turkey. In security matters, there is no such thing as waiting for the other guy to hit you first,' Mr Demirel told Istanbul's Milliyet newspaper.

Turkey has also demanded that Iraq remove the missiles from the no-fly zone, patrolled by 80 US, British and French aircraft based at the southern Turkish Nato airfield at Incirlik. The Foreign Ministry is still waiting for Baghdad's response.

There are, of course, many Turkish critics of allied operations. This Muslim country shared general indignation over how the US has come down hard on Iraq while not pushing for the implementation of United Nations resolutions on Bosnia and Israel.

As the republican heirs of the Ottomans, many Turks are also suspicious of Western military activity, despite their membership of Nato. They believe the allied planes will move from protecting Iraqi Kurds to fostering the creation of a Kurdish state that could end by splitting up Turkey.

Trying to whip up such feelings, Turkey's three main opposition parties - the centre-right, Islamic and left-wing - filed parliamentary censure motions against the government on charges ranging from treason to allowing Turkey to become party to a war. Newspaper columnists have also been critical.

Some diplomats believe that the government has been seriously rattled by the outcry - an analysis of Turkish ambivalence over the West's conflict with Iraq that seems to have been shared by President Saddam.

Iraq was once Turkey's second-biggest trading partner, and since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, senior Turkish politicians - including the Deputy Prime Minister - have often visited Baghdad and voiced sympathy with its struggle against the West.

Before Mr Demirel came to power in 1991, President Saddam would have read his speeches attacking Turkey's actions during the Gulf war. But the Iraqi leader probably did not know that in private Mr Demirel was always quick to reassure Western diplomats of his support.