Waiting For Showtime

If you want the quick version of what the U.S. Air Force is up to at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, skip the briefing-room slide show and check out Hassan's souvenir emporium in the Alley, a strip of shops and restaurants just outside the main gate. A shoulder patch for sale shows an American bald eagle sharpening its talons with a file. A T shirt, popular among Special Forces troops passing to and from Afghanistan, is more direct. It shows the Statue of Liberty giving a one-finger salute, with the caption, we're coming, motherf--s!

Hassan says he's stocking up: "I think there'll be a lot of business over the next few months." He's not the only one. While officials in Ankara claim they've received no specific requests from Washington to beef up the American presence at Incirlik, the Turks are certainly acting as if war may be imminent. Last week some of Ankara's top brass inspected another major air base at Diyarbakir, a garrison town in Turkey's southeast that could become a staging ground for U.S. airborne troops attacking the oil-rich northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. On the same trip, Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff, ordered units of the Second Army to a "state of readiness." He also confirmed that Turkish troops are already on the ground in northern Iraq, purportedly chasing separatist guerrillas but in fact preparing for possible allied action. On the civilian side, the Turkish Red Crescent--the Islamic equivalent of the International Red Cross--announced that it was preparing tents, blankets and medicine for deployment inside Iraq in the event of a refugee exodus of the sort that followed the gulf war in 1991. Perhaps most tellingly, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit officially handed over operational control of any assault to Turkey's military, giving them a free hand if war breaks out.

Incirlik is key to any attack. American and British warplanes have used the Turkish base to enforce the U.N.-mandated no-flight zone over northern Iraq since 1991. In recent months it has been the subject of intense bargaining between Ankara and Washington over its use as a forward base in any coming air campaign. There's virtually no chance the Turks will refuse, given their close ties to the United States. The question is price. Writing off Ankara's $4 billion military debt could be one bargaining chip; another could be increased access to new U.S. tank and drone technology, which Turkey is currently buying at inflated prices from Israel because Washington has restricted direct sales.

The access that allied forces have already had over the course of the past decade could prove critical to a U.S.-led offensive. The 100-odd U.S. and British planes stationed at Incirlik fly regular sorties over Baghdad-controlled territory, gaining invaluable experience against Saddam's forces. "Getting shot at isn't nice, but you get sharp because of it," says Group Capt. Philip Osborn, commander of the 400-strong British contingent at Incirlik. Like most other allied personnel at the base, he now knows Iraq's airspace well. Troops at Incirlik rotate nine times a year--with the result that, after 11 years, almost all of the U.S. Air Force's combat pilots, including the Air National Guard, have flown combat missions over Iraq.

For now, it's not a particularly aggressive operation. U.S. and British planes shot at Iraqi targets just 10 times this year in the northern no-flight zone, mostly in response to Iraqi fire (even as activity has ramped up in the southern no-flight zone). But even though allied planes aren't yet taking out Saddam's defenses, they are certainly getting a close look at them. F-15 and F-16 fighters armed with powerful detectors scope Iraqi radar installations, and British Jaguars take detailed aerial photographs of troop movements and mobile surface-to-air missile units. Strangely, there have been no noticeable increases in Saddam's defenses recently, a possible sign that he doesn't have much left to deploy.

The calm may be deceptive. Analysts say that Washington, should it choose, could bolster its forces at Incirlik within days. And the intelligence being gathered now will allow those planes to launch any operation almost immediately afterward. "We're keeping close tabs on our adversary," says Col. Steve West, chief of staff at Incirlik. "I'd say that after 11 years we have a pretty good picture." That's a stark contrast to Afghanistan, which was more or less an unknown quantity when U.S. troops and fliers went in. What might happen on the ground in Iraq remains an imponderable, but the course of an air war has been dress-rehearsed almost daily for a decade. At Incirlik, the performance now only awaits its opening night.