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On the Front Line: Incirlik Air Base in Turkey

October 8, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: American aircraft at Incirlik air base in Southern Turkey were grounded yesterday.

Flight crews caught up on repairs as pilots caught up on sleep lost the night before when they had to evacuate their quarters while a suspicious package was removed.

Commanders here consider a terrorist attack on Incirlik a potential threat.

This is officially a Turkish base, but it’s also a forward staging ground for U.S. troops en route to Afghanistan, and the headquarters for Operation Northern Watch, which enforces a no-fly zone over Iraq.

BRIG. GEN. ROBIN “SCOTTIE” SCOTT, U.S. Air Force: A quick look at a map will show that Turkey is in a very strategic location in a very unstable region in the world today, and so it plays a very important part for United States operations — coalition operations — anywhere in this region.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: General Robin “Scottie” Scott commands the American forces involved in Operation Northern Watch.

BRIG. GEN. ROBIN “SCOTTIE” SCOTT: Our mission is two-fold: one is to enforce the no-fly zone to make sure that no fixed-wing attack or fighter aircraft come north of the 36th parallel, and it’s also to monitor Iraqi force compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The northern and southern no-fly zones, which both U.S. and British forces patrol, were set up after the Gulf War to protect the Kurdish minority in the North and the Shiite Muslims in the South from further attack by Saddam Hussein.

U.S. missions involving from ten to forty aircraft are launched from Incirlik about 18 times a month. Fighters are refueled by U.S. tankers over northern Turkey before entering Iraqi air space.

F-16 pilot Major “Nick” Nichols returned here last week after having served at the base two years ago.

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS, U. S. Air Force: What we’ve got on the outside wings of the F-16 — we carry a combination of munitions. On the outside left wing you’re looking at an Amram, which is a radar guided missile; as we come in board here you’re looking at an Aim 9 Mike – which is a heat-seeking missile. This is a laser-guided munition that we use in conjunction with our targeting pod. On the front side of this, you’re just basically seeing the eyeball for the bomb.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This?

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS: That’s exactly right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And have you had to fire any of these so far?

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS: Since I’ve been here, no. When I was last… last time I was here in Operation Northern Watch I did.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What happened?

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS: Well, we had a… the way the situation was set up, we were getting shot at on the ground; we had specified targets that were released and that we were allowed to drop on, and we went inside and ended up taking those targets out.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pilots flying for Northern Watch operate under strict rules of engagement.

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS: If they are being actively engaged, they always have the right, the inherent right, of self-defense; to engage, as required, to maintain that they remain safe and don’t get shot down.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The full rules of engagement are classified, but U.S. operations are closely monitored by Turkish military officials.

American officers need their permission to attack some targets. The question under debate in Turkey, now, is how the country should respond if it’s asked to go beyond Operation Northern Watch, and allow Americans to use Incirlik in a wider war on Iraq.

Incirlik is located here in Aadana, in southern Turkey. Over the weekend, newspapers reported that the United States government has officially requested permission from the government of Turkey to use Incirlik, and two other bases even closer to Iraq, in the event of war.

The Turkish and American government denied those reports. But it’s no secret here that negotiations are under way to determine just what the United States might expect from Turkey if there is a war.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s a sensitive issue because political parties are in the midst of a hot campaign for parliamentary elections early next month. And politicians believe Turks overwhelmingly oppose war against Iraq. The economy has lost billions of dollars in the last decade because of the Gulf War and the economic sanctions against Iraq.

Newspaper columnist Cengiz Candar says “another Iraq war is anathema here.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why “anathema”? That’s a pretty strong word?

CENGIZ CANDAR, Yeni Safak Newspaper: Saddam is not a popular name in Turkey at all, but it’s still anathema for many, from the masses of people, to the government, to the members of parliament, and to the military leaders themselves, because we don’t see here in Turkey any end game, any exit strategy of the United States.

And even if they say… even if you hear in Turkey that it’s good if Saddam would leave the scene, a democracy will be established in Iraq. It’s a good melody for many ears in the United States, maybe, but really, in this part of the world, we know that this is a fantasy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So far, Turkey’s political leaders are pressing the United States for a peaceful resolution of the arms inspection issue in Iraq. Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel.

SUKRU SINA GUREL, Foreign Minister, Turkey: We wish to seek political solutions to political questions. And we feel that any action should have behind it the consensus of the international community, and especially the regional powers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the foreign minister and other officials have also made it clear that under the right circumstances, they will cooperate, as they often have, with the United States.

In Incirlik, General Scott refused to speculate on what would happen to his mission in case of war.

BRIG. GEN. ROBIN “SCOTTIE” SCOTT: Those are issues of policy between nations that are involved in the coalition. My real focus is the day-to-day execution of the Northern Watch mission, and that’s what I spend most of my waking hours taking care of.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Meanwhile, pilots say they’re getting training that will be invaluable in a wider war.

MAJ. NICK NICHOLS: We come to know our enemy. You know, a fighter pilot is a fool if he doesn’t know the enemy better than the enemy knows you.

And we go to large efforts to make sure that we know what we’re going up against. And a large part of that would be participating in Operation Northern Watch. You know, the more you see of the enemy, the more you participate in these campaigns, the better you’re going to get to know him, so I think it plays a large part on how well we do and how well we execute.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The tents and other quarters used at Incirlik can be configured to accommodate more people than the approximately 1,500 personnel here now.

U.S. SOLDIER: We also have the capability to pull out the temporary walls and expand the tent back to its wartime configuration, which is about 12 people per tent.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So even though no one will speculate about what’s coming, and when, here, they are thinking about how to respond.