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Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit

January 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: A Newsmaker interview with the prime minister of Turkey. We start with some background from Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: Within days of the September 11 attacks, U.S. fighter jets at Incirlik Air Force Base, in southeastern Turkey, went on high alert. The Turkish military also placed its units on alert, just one sign that this strategically- placed country was siding with its long-time ally, the United States. Since the war in Afghanistan began in October, more than 4,000 military flights have passed through Turkish airspace, often taking off from Incirlik.

Now, with the war winding down, Turkey has pledged 261 soldiers and six officers for the multinational peacekeeping force. And Turkey has offered to take over command when Britain withdraws its soldiers in three months. Turkey forms a nearly 1,000-mile wide bridge between Europe and the Middle East; among its neighbors: Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Turkey was a strong ally of the United States in the Gulf War against Iraq, and U.S. and British planes still use a Turkish base as a launching pad to patrol the no-fly zone. The possibility of a new U.S. war against Iraq has provoked concern in Turkey, in part because of fears that it could lead to the rise of a Kurdish state on the border. Turkey has fought a 15-year war against Kurdish rebels at home.

The nation of 68 million people is 99.8 percent Muslim, but its government has been rigorously secular since the founding of the modern Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atta Turk, in 1923.

Women dress in western garb; it’s against the law for them to cover their heads in some public buildings. Islamic parties are strictly regulated; Turkey is a rare parliamentary democracy in the region, but the military plays a strong political role.

The current prime minister is 76-year-old Bulent Ecevit, a veteran politician who has served in that job four times since 1973. Ecevit arrived in the United States on Monday for a five-day visit. He met with officials of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, seeking relief for military debts and assistance for Turkey’s faltering economy.

At the White House yesterday, President Bush welcomed the prime minister, and praised his efforts in the war against terrorism.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As a friend, you have been steadfast in your support in the war against terror, and for that, my nation is very grateful. We appreciate your leadership when it comes to foreign policy, and we appreciate your leadership when it comes to economic policy. You and your administration have made some very tough decisions, and the economy is improving as a result of your leadership.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tomorrow, Ecevit is scheduled to travel to New York, where he will visit the World Trade Center site before returning home.

JIM LEHRER: I spoke to the prime minister this afternoon at his Washington hotel.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.

BULENT ECEVIT, Prime Minister, Turkey: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: Are you satisfied with the way things are going in Afghanistan?

BULENT ECEVIT: Yes, much better than expected at the early stage. There was expectations that the fights there, the operation there might be extended for several months, even for several years. But within a few weeks it ended, because obviously the Taliban wasn’t a real force.

The armies, the difference of all of those armies that had been fighting each other and the Taliban took advantage of that to rule over the whole country. But thanks to the efforts, the initiative of the United States and of the several countries from the world, from Europe, including Turkey, it ended within a few weeks. I’m glad to hear that.

JIM LEHRER: And did that surprise you as well as everyone else?

BULENT ECEVIT: Yes, yes, indeed. Of course the problems do not end here. There is, as you know, there is no unified national Afghan army or police force. They have to be rebuilt from scratch. And in fact, I wrote a letter to Mr. Karzai when he took over the task of premiership…

JIM LEHRER: He’s running the temporary government now.

BULENT ECEVIT: Yes. I suggested that we had experience in helping other countries build their military forces, and we would be willing and happy to do the same for Afghanistan, together with the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now the United States apparently wants Turkey to kind of run this new… The peacekeeping force eventually, right, and to play a large role in the new… In rebuilding…

BULENT ECEVIT: This is a different arrangement from what explained, but agreement has not yet been reached among countries, which will contribute to the security force. But there are indications that Turkey might be given this task. Of course we would try fulfill it. But apart from the military measures, security measures, of course, Afghanistan needs great help for building up its social life, its economic life. It has become a very poor country, neglected for many years.

We have been helping, trying to help Afghanistan in many ways, even from the beginning of… the beginnings of the ’20s, 1920s, when he we were fighting our own national struggle. Ataturk sent several Turkish staff officers to Afghanistan, helped them build their own army. And even very recently, when Taliban was in office, we took the humanitarian task of building hospital, for instance, schools and other arrangements.

JIM LEHRER: Are you optimistic that Afghanistan can be rebuilt as a stable and peaceful nation?

BULENT ECEVIT: It can be rebuilt if other countries with selfish interests will not meddle, as has been done in the past. If politically Afghanistan is left alone, Afghanistan people is left alone, they will mend their own fences, they will form their own problems. But if too many countries, as has been the case, interfere too much in the internal affairs, the political situation of Afghanistan, then of course we can’t hope satisfactory results. But if we leave them alone, just satisfying ourselves with social work, economic work and the building up of a national army, it can make progress, hopefully within a short time.

JIM LEHRER: There has been… There have been many suggestions and even overt threats in this country about the fact that the next step in the war on terrorism should be the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Do you support that?

BULENT ECEVIT: Well, we don’t want to interfere in the political questions of other countries, particularly neighboring countries, it would create serious problems for Turkey. What has been essential for Turkey is that Iraq should not be divided, because that would have adverse effects for Turkey.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about either — a division based on the Kurds?

BULENT ECEVIT: That’s right, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And then the Kurds in Turkey might unite with Kurds in Iraq and cause a problem?

BULENT ECEVIT: Well, I’m sure there are people of Turkish origin wouldn’t want to do that, but external forces would try to influence the situation in Turkey. After all, we paid great prices because of the virtual partitioning of Iraq. We missed at least $50 billion worth of incomes. And the separatist terrorist organization, PKK, had easy access to Turkey to, inside Turkey.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to what President Bush and others have said, is that as long as Saddam Hussein is in control of Iraq, Iraq will be a threat to the region. It is attempting to build weapons of mass destruction.

BULENT ECEVIT: Yes, we certainly have to undertake all measures to see to it that the Baghdad regime is not organized and militarized in a degree and way that it would pose a serious threat for the region. We wouldn’t allow that. And of course we have been cooperating with the United States through an air base in Turkey called Incirlik, where American aircraft are situationed.

And whenever there is something that creates a suspicion, the aircraft in Incirlik intervene. So we keep an eye, a close eye on northern Iraq, because northern Iraq is a serious problem for us. It could be used as a basis for partitioning in Turkey, as well. Nobody could do it, but the efforts to do such a thing would cause serious problems in Turkey. So we are fulfilling our task in preventing serious armament stocks in Iraq within our possibilities.

JIM LEHRER: Did you discuss this with President Bush or any other U.S. officials?

BULENT ECEVIT: Yes. President Bush brought up the question yesterday when we visited with him. He expressed in strong terms that he can’t… That he has to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

JIM LEHRER: And you expressed back what you just said to me, the concerns of Turkey?

BULENT ECEVIT: Well, that our main concern is that Iraq should not become a divided country.

JIM LEHRER: And that… What did… Did you say what Turkey’s position would be if the U.S. did take military action of some kind?

BULENT ECEVIT: Well, we wouldn’t even think of a military action because that would have extremely adverse results for Turkey. After all, we are on the borders. We have a common border with Iraq. And it’s a very sensitive area geopolitically, but President Bush assured us that if and when Iraq may… The United States may take… They may decide to take a step, a serious step, they would consult with us.

JIM LEHRER: I see. I’m sure you’re aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, but there are many American commentators as a result of September 11 and the war on Afghanistan have suggested that Turkey is a perfect example, a model for a majority Islamic state but a secular state. Do you believe… In other words, people were concerned about what might happen in Iraq or Iran or Saudi Arabia even. They all point toward Turkey as a model. Do you that your country and the way you operate is transferable to other countries, Islamic countries?

BULENT ECEVIT: Certainly. We have proven, Turkey has proven that Islam can be compatible with democracy, with modernity, and even with secularism, so… But some Islamic countries had doubts about that. However, after the tragic events of the 11th of September, several circles in other Islamic countries began to think that after all the Turkish model should be the model that they would take as an example themselves. It may take some time, but I’m sure that a new feeling to that… In that regard is becoming apparent in many Islamic countries– not in all of them, but most them.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to critics who suggest that one of the ways Turkey has been able to deal with potential problems from radical fundamentalist Islamic groups is through rather harsh treatment of them, both in terms of human rights violations and that sort of thing?

BULENT ECEVIT: Although we dealt decisively with all terrorist organizations, we at the same time not only maintained, preserved our democracy, but kept improving it. We have in the last two years, we have passed 350 legislation in the parliament, most of which deal with democratization, human rights, and of course, economy.

And while we fought against terrorism, we at the same– our anti-secular forces– we at the same time took care that we should abide, we should continue to abide democracy and human rights. And it is essential that in fighting terrorism, sacrifices should not be made on democracy.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Prime Minister, I read about the desire of Turkey to have a better economic relationship with the United States, particularly on some tariff relief on steel and other things, and my understanding is that you came up empty handed on this trip, is that correct?

BULENT ECEVIT: No, I don’t think so. On the contrary, the United States’ Foreign Office, State Department, issued a statement yesterday saying that our strategic partner… America’s strategic partnership in Turkey, which is based particularly on security concerns and politics; in addition to that, to supplement it, economic partnership also will be established, and for that purpose a committee will be formed, the first meeting of which will be held at the end of September, headed by Mr. Larson from the American side. And this arrangement will take up all the economic and trade relation problems between the two countries.

JIM LEHRER: So you do not leave here disappointed, you leave here happy with…

BULENT ECEVIT: No, I believe in the good will of the United States’ administration.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much.

BULENT ECEVIT: Thank you. It has been a pleasure meeting you.