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Turk leader wants more assurances from U.S.

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's top politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan, poised to become prime minister, said his country needs more assurances from Washington on the future of Iraq before agreeing to base U.S. troops for a possible war.

Erdogan has backed the deployment of American soldiers to Turkey and hinted he would seek a fresh vote on the matter after parliament on March 1 rejected basing of 62,000 troops here to open a northern front against Iraq.

But in an interview after Sunday's sweeping local election victory that won him a seat in parliament, Erdogan appeared in no hurry to resubmit a motion on deployment.

"I cannot give a date. There are also steps that the United States has to take," he said.

Erdogan said Turkey, a key U.S. ally and the only NATO member bordering Iraq, was still seeking assurances from Washington "on the role" it would play post-Saddam Hussein. He did not elaborate.

Turkey, which fears northern Iraqi Kurds may declare independence in the aftermath of a war, has been pressing for a say in the future of Iraq if Saddam is ousted. Secession by Iraqi Kurds could inspire Turkey's rebel Kurds, who for 15 years have been fighting for autonomy.

"What will Turkey's role be? If Turkey has no role in this, why would Turkey share such a risk? This must be clarified," Erdogan said.

Turkey also wanted guaranteed rights for Iraq's Turkmen population, he said. Turkey has close ethnic ties with the Turkmens and is concerned their rights are being overlooked by the more numerous Kurds and Arabs.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson had addressed Erdogan's concerns in a three-hour meeting Sunday. The diplomat confirmed the Turks were seeking further assurances from Washington.

But Erdogan said his questions on Turkey's role and the Turkmen issue were not answered in his meeting with Pearson.

Erdogan also said Turkey would wait for the U.N. Security Council to vote on a U.S.-backed resolution that would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm or face war.

"We have the U.N. Security Council before us. We have the process of forming a new government," Erdogan told CNN-Turk television when asked about a new resolution. "We need to assess all these very carefully, and then we will take a decision."

Turks overwhelmingly oppose a war, but snubbing the United States is a risk Turkey cannot afford to take. Ankara would strain ties with Washington and forfeit a $15 billion U.S. aid package offered to offset the effects of war on the frail economy.

Erdogan blamed parliament's rejection of troop deployment last week on pressure from Washington.

"On the issue of the motion, there was no need to act with such haste," he said. "The right atmosphere, environment needs to be created."

Erdogan leads the Justice and Development Party, the dominant force in parliament which captured 84.7 percent of votes Sunday in a by-election in the southeastern town of Siirt. The party won all three seats contested there, paving the way for Erdogan — previously banned from running for office — to enter parliament and become prime minister.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said he would resign Tuesday or Wednesday, after Erdogan had been sworn in as a member of parliament.

"After he has taken his oath, I will go to the president and open the way for the formation of a new government," Gul said after what is likely the last meeting of his Cabinet.

Erdogan, seen as already running Turkey from behind the scenes, said he planned to make changes to the government — predicted by analysts to be the sacking of ministers who opposed the U.S. troop deployment. "We will meet with Mr. Gul ... to assess the performances (of the ministers) and take steps accordingly," he said.

Erdogan had been barred from running in November national elections because of a conviction for inciting religious hatred over a poem he read at a 1997 rally in Siirt, 60 miles north of the Iraqi border. He spent four months in prison in 1999.

He was able to run in Sunday's by-elections after Justice lawmakers changed the constitution, and voting in Siirt was rescheduled after the election board ruled a ballot box there had been tampered with during the national vote.

"He left with a poem, and his return was like poetry," headlined the newspaper Yeni Safak.

"Divine Justice," headlined the daily Tercuman.