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Turkey: The War Next Door

March 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Turkey’s people oppose their country participating in a U.S. invasion of Iraq. But in this upscale neighborhood of Ankara, a banker said he would favor a reconsideration in parliament now.

KAZIM OZTURK (Translated): War is not something that anyone could approve of. Nobody would want war. The resolution was voted down in parliament, so there would be no war. This made everybody happy. But if our country is threatened from the outside, we have to take the necessary precautions to defend our country. If need be, a new resolution will be passed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Across town, in a neighborhood where many people are unemployed, a group of men explained the economic risks of war. “If we join with America,” one man said, “it won’t be cheap. The earlier Gulf War finished our trade with Iraq and Iran, and now the trade embargo against Iraq hurts us badly.” Savas Kurtbas said he feared U.S. power would prevail, but he was willing to accept whatever parliament decides.

SAVAS KURTBAS ( Translated ): Of course America is a world superpower, and we will try to do things their way. We have a parliament. We are a free nation. We make our own decisions. And to make those decisions, we send the necessary majority to the parliament. And I believe that majority will come up with the best decision for us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There was some disagreement about that, and then another man said he worried that the U.S. was ignoring the parliamentary vote against deployment. “America is already moving in,” he said, referring to scenes like this, which have played repeatedly on Turkish television. This convoy of American military vehicles left the port of Iskenderun yesterday, and headed east toward the border with Iraq.

Similar convoys have been on the move for days. Two months ago, Turkey’s parliament did grant permission for about 3,500 U.S. soldiers to enter Turkey. They would upgrade ports and air bases for the potential arrival of combat troops later. Ilnur Cevik is editor of the Turkish Daily News, an English language paper based in Ankara.

ILNUR CEVIK: There is a massive American buildup. In a point of no return, really, all these ships are being offloaded. And Turkey has found a kind of way to facilitate the American administration, saying, “Look, we haven’t allowed you to bring troops here, but all the hardware can come in and be stationed somewhere around the border areas, and then we can bring troops in later on.”

There are all kinds of containers, which we don’t know what is in them. But we are told that there are ammunition in them, logistical support, health materials, medical materials, there are tanks, there are jeeps, there are those Hummel things you’re talking about which go on the desert sand, all these things are coming.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: An American official denied ammunition and tanks are arriving, and said the U.S. has been scrupulous in keeping to the terms of the agreement with Turkey for upgrading ports and bases. Ilnur Cevik said there’s also a large buildup of Turkish troops near the border.

ILNUR CEVIK: The Turkish troops are massed on the border. Tanks are there, planes are all ready for action, everything is, you know, in war gear in Turkey.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tayyip Erdogan, who was sworn in as a member of the Turkish parliament yesterday, and will become prime minister in a day or so, stands at the center of the controversy over this country’s role in any American invasion of Iraq. Erdogan led his Justice and Development, or AK Party, to an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections last fall.

But though he campaigned throughout the country and was enormously popular, he was not allowed by law to run for parliament himself. His political party has Islamist roots, and he was convicted in the 1990s of inciting religious hatred. He had read a poem in public that was considered offensive by security authorities here, who uphold Turkey’s historic commitment to secular rule.

But his AK Party won the elections last fall, and once in power, changed the constitution. Erdogan was allowed to run for parliament in a special election, and is now indisputably in charge. He had regretted the March 1 vote against deployment of American troops in Turkey, and promised to call another vote soon.

Ilnur Cevik, who is a member of the AK Party very close to Erdogan, said Erdogan is insisting on some guarantees from the United States before holding another vote. Most important, the party believes Turkey must have a role in the shaping of a future Iraq. The Turkish military in particular is concerned about the Kurds who live in southeast Turkey as well as northern Iraq, because some Kurds would like their own Kurdish state.

ILNUR CEVIK: We want to of course have a say because Iraq is next to us. We couldn’t care less if this happened in Mexico because we wouldn’t come to you and say “we want a say in the way the Mexican government is being formed.” But this is next door. Any fire there spills over to us. Will we be there? How far will we be there? What will be our role? That is what Erdogan wants to learn from the Americans.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why should Turkey have a role in what happens in Iraq next? Should Iran have a role, should Syria have a role? They are also neighbors.

ILNUR CEVIK: Neither Syria, nor Iraq, has suffered the five to 15 years of Kurdish separatist terrorism. We have. We have lost 35,000 people in the process, and we have also lost about 50 to 60 billion dollars trying to fight these people. Now, we suffered. And this suffering has created a kind of psychological trauma in the Turkish people. They are saying, “If there is an independent Kurdish entity there, will this have a mouthwatering effect on the secessionists in Turkey?”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cevik said Erdogan is also insisting on economic guarantees.

ILNUR CEVIK: He wants some guarantees that when the United States says, “we will compensate you on your economic loses in a probable war in Iraq.” He wants them to give him guarantees that this will not remain in words like last time. In the first Gulf War, Turkey was given a lot of promises. But they were all left in the end.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In addition, Cevik said, Erdogan wants guarantees for the Turkmen in Iraq, Turkish peoples who have, like the Kurds, been repressed by Saddam Hussein. These are Turkmen refugees from Iraq, living in Istanbul. Erdogan wants Turkmen included in the Iraqi opposition coalition that has been forming in recent months as a kind of shadow government.

The Bush administration’s envoy to the opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, may come to Ankara this week for meetings aimed at assuring Erdogan the Turkmen will be taken into account. If Erdogan gets these guarantees, Cevik said, he will most probably call for another vote.

ILNUR CEVIK: He will announce his cabinet. And that cabinet will start functioning. Now, it will take some time. And then the new motion can be introduced to the parliament. That would be by next week. Does the American administration have that patience, I wonder.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There are other key questions still pending, too. At a press conference yesterday, I asked outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Gul what the AK Party would do in the absence of a U.N. resolution backing a U.S. Invasion of Iraq.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it AK Party policy to not have another vote in parliament, if there is no U.N. resolution in favor of an invasion?

ABDULLAH GUL, Acting Prime Minister, Turkey ( Translated ): We are looking into these matters. We are in the midst of changing the government rapidly. When the new government is formed, the situation will be resolved. It’s difficult to say anything right now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Much remains undecided here, and people said they’ll be watching parliament and the U.N. closely in the days ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Turkey’s ambassador to the United States said today that the U.S. does not have permanents to use air base or air space for an attack on Iraq. The country’s incoming prime minister told President Bush in a phone call it could take a while to get that permission.