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Gary Younge
Bush's war timetable unravelling

Plans to open a northern front against Iraq - seen as vital to ensure a pincer movement against Baghdad - were looking shaky last night as Turkey resisted an ultimatum from Washington to accept US troop deployments or forfeit a multi-billion dollar compensation package.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, warned Ankara it had been presented with a final financial offer - believed to exceed $26bn - and that a response was needed. "There comes a moment when plans must be made, decisions must be made, and it cannot stretch on indefinitely," he said.

The trouble with Turkey is compounded by fresh diplomatic hurdles. The US and Britain have been forced to postpone until next week the publication of a second UN resolution designed to marshal support within the security council for military action.

The resolution will now not be put to a vote before early March, following another report by the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix. British jitters over persuading the UN to back war were underlined yesterday when officials insisted that they would press ahead with military action even if the resolution were heavily defeated.

The likelihood of such a defeat has deepened with the open rift between the US and France and Germany which was again on display yesterday. The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in effect accused the two European countries of being too cowardly to go to war.

"It is not a satisfactory solution to continue inspections indefinitely because certain countries are afraid of upholding their responsibility to impose the will of the international community," Mr Powell said.

But the most urgent problem facing the US in its push to war is Turkey, traditionally a staunch Nato partner. The Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated yesterday there was little sign of the impasse being resolved quickly, saying there were no plans for a parliamentary vote this week on allowing US troops on Turkish soil.

Failure by Turkey to open its bases to American troops would mean that US transport ships carrying thousands of servicemen and essential equipment would have to be re-routed to the Gulf or elsewhere. Any diversionary attack against Baghdad from the north may then have to be scaled back dramatically. The block on US servicemen might also leave the Kurds vulnerable to an Iraqi counter-attack.

As a fallback position, US special service troops and Kurdish fighters have been upgrading three airstrips in northern Iraq which might be used as advance supply positions. But the US would be denied the modern infrastructure of the main Turkish airbases such as Incirlik, Batman and Diyarbakir.

The latest opinion polls in Turkey suggest that 90% of the electorate is opposed to war.

Turkey's resistance to participating in an unpopular war, which it fears would undermine its weakened economy, has been bolstered by the strength of anti-war protests around the world last weekend.

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, admitted the lack of cooperation was causing some discomfort: "Obviously, the more assistance one gets the easier it is. The less assistance one gets, the more difficult it is." He predicted an eventual Turkish climbdown.

The disarray over military planning will boost the Iraqi government, which has already been buoyed by Mr Blix's last report as well as by worldwide anti-war demonstrations. UN officials said yesterday that the Iraqi government has been emboldened to the point where it sees no urgency in meeting the weapons inspectors' call for deeper cooperation.

In a move which suggests that the inspectors are taking a tougher stance, Mr Blix has decided to ask Iraq to destroy its al-Samoud 2 missiles, diplomatic sources said last night.

Iraq's response to the demand will be a crucial test of the inspection system.

UN officials in Baghdad also said yesterday that they had detected a disturbing shift in Baghdad's attitude in the last few days. They say the protests have encouraged Iraq to believe it can turn the divisions in the security council to its advantage, a strategy that could stall the speedy progress sought by Mr Blix, who is expected to make a further report to the security council around March 6 rather than, as suggested by Washington and London, on February 28.

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