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Pulitzer Center Update August 25, 2002

Prospect of War Has Turkey on Edge



The following article was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2002.

Nevsehir, Turkey--To many Turks, an American military attack on Iraq within the next few months is considered inevitable, so much so that carpet manufacturer Fikhi Cavdar makes the looming conflict part of his sales pitch.

"I hear the war drums beating," Cavdar tells a visitor to his factory in the moonscape hills of central Turkey's Cappadocia region.

"Please buy this rug," he pleads, showing off the stiff backing of an exquisite wool-and-silk carpet."Soon there will be no rugs sold at all, for one or two or maybe even three years," he says, "and all because America wants a war."

Cavdar's jitters are widely shared, from low-ranking soldiers and average workers to senior officials in the Turkish government. In interviews over the past three weeks, almost without exception, they voiced deep misgivings about the prospect of a U.S. war with Iraq and what it would mean for Turkey, America's staunchest ally in the Muslim world.

"If and when you fight a country your actions should not create another problem," said Hakan Okcal, who heads the counterterrorism office in the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

He believes a war against neighboring Iraq would do just that -- crippling Turkey's already precarious economy, spawning renewed terrorist activity among the millions of ethnic Kurds who straddle the Turkish-Iraqi border, inflaming religious tension at a time when an Islamist party threatens to run away with parliamentary elections set for November.

"You shouldn't kill one enemy and create other enemies in the process," Okcal said. "You shouldn't hurt your friends in the name of fighting an enemy."

But even the fiercest critics of American policy are resigned to going along with whatever the U.S.government decides. They say the United States is so dominant, militarily and politically and economically -- its support so critical in terms of attracting international loans, trade and investment -- that Turkey doesn't have the option of defying America's will.

"I deal with reality," said government spokesman Vecdi Gedik, "and the reality is that in this matter Turkey has no choice.

"America is the locomotive," he said. "If the locomotive moves forward, so too will the wagons behind. I don't say that we are the first wagon. Perhaps we are the 15th wagon. But when the locomotive moves, Turkey will move as well."

A democracy strained

Supporters of "regime change" in Baghdad say that removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would open the way for a democratic government that could serve as a model for the rest of the Muslim world.

The prototype already exists, in Turkey.

With 66 million people, Turkey is three times larger than Iraq. It is a non-Arabic but overwhelmingly Muslim country (98 percent plus). The only Muslim country in the NATO alliance, Turkey hopes to begin negotiations later this year to join the European Union.

Its constitution is firmly secular, so much so that all imams -- Muslim priests -- are employed and supervised by the government-funded Ministry of Religious Affairs. In Turkey, unlike in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, imams who preach hatred and violence are denounced and dismissed.

"An imam doesn't have the right to call for jihad or for suicide bombings," said Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, president of the Religious Affairs Ministry. "If he calls for suicide bombings, or for a terrorist jihad, he is no longer an imam. He is no longer an imam because he is dealing with things outside religion."

Three years ago, the central government in Ankara, the Turkish capital, finally resolved the long-simmering rebellion by Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey, a conflict that had taken 35,000 lives and sullied Turkey's image abroad. Just this summer the Parliament approved legislation to abolish the death penalty and to give Kurds the right to broadcast and teach in their own language, two preconditions that the European Union had set for considering Turkey's application for membership.

But those positive developments have occurred against a backdrop of severe economic and political strain.

The gross domestic product dropped 9.4 percent last year, as Turkey weathered its worst recession since 1945. The number of unemployed has more than doubled since early last year, to 2.5 million, and during that time the value of Turkey's currency, the lira, has dropped by half.

The $16 billion in credits that Turkey negotiated with the International Monetary Fund as part of an economic reform program makes it the IMF's biggest single creditor. Its debt overall is a staggering $114 billion; 40 percent of government expenditures go to interest payments.

Support for the center-left government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit collapsed this summer, with parliamentary elections now set for Nov. 3. The only party that has attracted significant support so far is a newly created, self-styled "moderate" Islamist party, Justice and Development, that has Turkey's secular elite talking darkly of Iranian-style mullahs taking control.

The party is led by Tayyip Erdogan, a charismatic former mayor of Istanbul. He barnstorms the country in American-style campaign buses, painted in the garish blues and yellows of Turkey's favorite soccer team and festooned with giant photographs of himself. The sophisticated team he has assembled insists that the party has no hidden agenda, that it is committed to political and economic rights for all Turks.

Others aren't so sure. They worry that if the Turkish economy continues sour, or if a war against Iraq goes badly, a government led by Erdogan would play the religious card.

Gulf War consequences

"I don't believe in the idea of 'Islam light' or 'moderate' Islam," said Omer Tarkin, a television commentator and columnist for the newspaper Posta in Ankara.

Tarkin draws a parallel to what happened in 1991. Turkey sided then with the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, cutting off oil pipeline deliveries and permitting the United States to conduct air operations from the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.

The war's aftermath brought considerable trouble for Turkey: 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Iraq, a spike in violence by Kurdish rebels inside Turkey, the loss of $1 billion a year in Turkish-Iraqi trade and billions of dollars more from skittish tourists who canceled Turkish vacations.

"During the Gulf War we lost a huge amount," Tarkin said. "Turkey lost that war, in a way. We think there is the possibility that now we may lose again, quite a lot."

Okcal, the counterterrorism chief, said the worst consequence of 1991 was the power vacuum it left in northern Iraq, which became the base for stepped-up attacks against Turkey by separatist Kurdish forces.

"Before the Gulf War we had encountered difficulties with terrorism," Okcal said. "After the war, and the political disintegration of northern Iraq, our problems multiplied."

Turkish officials fear a repeat scenario, especially as they watch American war planners court the Kurdish factions of northern Iraq.

U.S. policymakers compare the Iraqi Kurds to Afghanistan's northern alliance: a militarily cohesive force that could be the vanguard in displacing Saddam Hussein. Leaders of the two main Kurdish groups were among six Iraqi opposition representatives who traveled to Washington earlier this month to discuss the parameters of a post-Saddam Iraq.

Turkey's concern is that Iraqi Kurds are angling for an independent Kurdistan. They already enjoy semi-autonomy under the protection of the U.S. and British jets enforcing the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. With Saddam gone, they might take the next step: combining the 5 million Kurds of Iraq with an estimated 10 million in Turkey and millions more in Iran.

When he visited Ankara in July, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz stressed that the United States was sensitive to Turkey's concerns, both as to the economic impact of a war and the Kurdish question.

"There is a lot of agreement with Turkey on what we would like to see after Saddam," Wolfowitz told reporters. "We're both opposed to Kurdish states. We're both concerned about the rights of minorities."

Yet when U.S. officials set up last week's meeting in Washington with Iraqi opposition groups, they left out the Iraqi minority of greatest interest to Turkey: the 3 million ethnic Turkmen, most of whom live in the areas of northern Iraq dominated by Kurds.

A U.S. official in Ankara noted that the Turkmen had had other opportunities to present their views. The Washington meeting was focused on the "Big Six" Iraqi opposition groups, he said; the Turkmen could not have been included without inviting even smaller ethnic groups.

Mustafa Ziyai, the Ankara representative of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, said such explanations betray an ignorance of the Turkmen's significance, both to their ethnic cousins in Turkey and within northern Iraq.

The Turkmen make up half the population in the major oil production regions of Kirkuk and Mosel, Ziyai said, and they will fight to protect their interests -- even if the opponents turn out to be American-backed Iraqi Kurds.

"We don't want any military operation to happen in Iraq," Ziyai said. "But if war comes, our duty to our people is to protect them."

"We will stay here"

Senior Turkish officials say they are pressing the case for alternatives short of war -- for reviving the United Nations weapons inspection program, for taking the time to build a common coalition with U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe, for recognizing that military intervention is fraught with unforeseen consequences.

Yasar Yakis, deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party, is a 39-year veteran of Turkey's diplomatic corps with stints as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"Iraq as a neighbor has long-standing relations with Turkey," he said. "Any Turkish action that causes Iraq harm will be written, engraved, in the minds of its people for a long time. And they will blame Turkey for having taken such action.

"America will carry out this operation and will go back home, sooner or later," Yakis said. "But we will stay here."

For the moment, the conversations go on.

"They are listening," said Turkkekel Kurttekin, director of Middle East affairs at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

"I can't say they like what we are telling them," he added. "But we have lived in this region for centuries.We have a deep insight into the nature of these regimes."

At a glance

Population: 66.5 million (2001 est.)

Government: Republican parliamentary democracy headed by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.

Area: 301,400 square miles

Geography: Mostly mountainous, narrow coastal plain; high central plateau

Ethnic Groups: Turkish (80 percent), Kurdish (20 percent)

Religions: Islam 99.8 percent, Christianity and Judaism 0.2 percent