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Turkish Opinion of U.S. War in Iraq Taints Relations

November 27, 2006 at 2:56 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: But first, Margaret Warner is in Turkey. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be covering the pope’s visit there. Her first report tonight focuses on the effect the war in Iraq is having on Turkey’s relations with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Every weekend, the bridges of Istanbul lure fishermen from all over the city. The Bosphorus that separates Europe from Asia is rich in mackerel, bonito and sea bass, and the fishermen plying its waters are rich in opinions about Turkey’s longtime ally, the United States.

LEVENT ERGUNES, Fisherman (through translator): America should leave the Middle East, leave these people alone. That’s why we don’t have good feelings about the USA. They came to bring justice; now things are even worse.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s the war in Iraq, right on Turkey’s doorstep, that has transformed America’s image here. A country that for 50 years stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. in NATO, a country whose people once prized their friendship with America, is now roiling with doubts about whether that relationship works for them any longer.

ERDINC ASYALIOGLU, Fisherman (through translator): We’ve always loved America. It’s a country we want to visit and a place we want to live. But when Bush was elected, his invasion of Iraq, and Iraq going out of control, it affected us in a very bad way.

NUR VERGIN, Political Scientist: I have never witnessed such a thing in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Nur Vergin, who just retired as a political science professor at Istanbul University, is stunned at the change in attitude she’s seen in the young, Westernized students she’s been teaching for decades. Roughly half the country’s population is under the age of 25, and she says the Iraq war has put their affection and regard for America at profound risk.

NUR VERGIN: Because America is seen as an imperialistic power which attacked, after all, a Muslim society, a neighboring Muslim society, so there is much empathy, there is much sympathy, and, of course, anti-Americanism.

'Violent Americans'

Ross Wilson
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey
[T]hey see the other pictures of the violence that's taken place in Iraq, the pictures from Abu Ghraib. These are not good images; they have not helped us here.

MARGARET WARNER: Popular culture abounds with evidence of that anti-Americanism. Turkish bookstores carry American novelist Stephen King, but novels portraying a menacing view of the United States ride the bestseller lists. The blockbuster is a pulp fiction thriller, "Metal Storm," and its three sequels, depicting a U.S. invasion of Turkey from bases in Iraq and a retaliatory nuclear strike on Washington by a Turkish secret agent.

And then there is "Valley of the Wolves," a wildly popular film and television series based on a real-life event that took place in the northern Iraq town of Sulaymaniyah in July 2003.

ACTOR: Make no mistake. We will kill you. In lieu of that, we're going to take you back to headquarters for questioning.

ACTOR: You mean interrogation? For what?

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. troops, believing they'd stumbled across a cadre of Iraqi insurgents, arrested members of a Turkish special forces unit operating undercover, and marched them to waiting trucks with hoods over their heads. The image of Americans, portrayed in the film as violent and abusive, humiliating fellow NATO soldiers, inflamed Turkish public opinion. And the sense of national outrage over the incident has persisted.

ROSS WILSON, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey: Before they were identified, they were treated like insurgents, which is to say not very nicely.

MARGARET WARNER: Ross Wilson is U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

ROSS WILSON: It was front-page news and has continued to be front-page news in this country, every several months when this story is resurfaced. We've apologized several times. It doesn't mean that it didn't rankle public opinion here.

And then they see the other pictures of the violence that's taken place in Iraq, the pictures from Abu Ghraib. These are not good images; they have not helped us here.

Cross-border security problems

Gen. Edip Baser
Turkish Counterterrorism Envoy
This terrorist organization is still active and coming into my country, killing people, and then going back to northern Iraq. Why I should not go after them, this is difficult to understand for Turkish people[.]

MARGARET WARNER: The Iraq war has also struck at Turkey's sense of security from terrorism. To explore that, you have to travel 1,000 miles east from Istanbul to the Cudi Mountains on Turkey's southeastern border with Iraq.

The Tigris River flows from here 300 miles south to Baghdad. The region has long been home to rebels from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, whose 22-year campaign for independence claimed more than 30,000 lives. After a five-year cease-fire, the Turks say the situation has been reignited by the fallout from the Iraq war.

At this border crossing into Iraq, you can see the impact the three-year war and occupation there has had on Turkey. On the one hand, it's created great new business and trading opportunities for Turks in Saddam-free northern Iraq.

But in the hills behind me, Turkey's PKK Kurdish rebels enjoy safe haven in Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq, and they're using it as a base to launch terror attacks on civilians back inside Turkey. The Turks blame the United States for that, and they have even broader concerns about how the Iraq conflict might end.

The impunity with which the militants operate in these hills, with no apparent restraint by U.S. occupying forces or their Iraqi Kurdish allies, enrages the Turkish government. Abdullah Gul is Turkey's foreign minister.

Is it really that much of a threat to Turkey?

ABDULLAH GUL, Turkish Foreign Minister: It really is a threat, because they are using remote-controlled mines and explosives and killing so many innocent people. We can't understand this, you see.

If enemy regimes gives this opportunity to them, we understand this, you see. That is the enemy regime, you see. They do everything. But this is a friendly country, the country we are helping, the country that is controlled by our allies, and we are helping them. This is the problem, you see.

MARGARET WARNER: And you feel the United States is letting you down?

ABDULLAH GUL: Well, they are doing their best, but our expectation is more than this. This is clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier this year, some of the country's top tourist resorts, and even Istanbul itself, were targeted in a string of PKK bombings. Retired General Edip Baser says that caused some in the Turkish military and government to propose sending the country's armed forces into northern Iraq to root out the militants as they had done in the past.

GEN. EDIP BASER, Special Turkish Envoy for Counterterrorism: This terrorist organization is still active and coming into my country, killing people, and then going back to northern Iraq. Why I should not go after them, this is difficult to understand for Turkish people, and particularly for Turkish military personnel.

MARGARET WARNER: The Bush administration has leaned on the Turks not to send military units into Iraq to pursue the PKK, but American Ambassador Wilson concedes that, earlier this year, the Turks seemed on the verge of doing it anyway.

ROSS WILSON: Certainly, a number of us were concerned about the prospects for possible cross-border activity in the summer. The context was a rapid increase in PKK violence this year that claimed over 600 lives through the end of September. That's a big number for any democratically elected government to bear.

MARGARET WARNER: Why hasn't the U.S. done more to stop the PKK raids or to go and clean them out?

ROSS WILSON: U.S. forces are rather busy. They face a number of terrorist problems, a number of insurgent problems. They have focused their primary energies on those insurgent issues that directly challenge the center of gravity in Baghdad and that challenge our forces.

Effect on the economy

Cengiz Candar
Bugun Newspaper
Well, in the Turkish psyche or in the Turkish subconscious, the concern and even fear of partition, of losing territories, is strongly embedded, because, after all, this is a country which has a legacy of an empire which shrinked.

MARGARET WARNER: Turks are freely entering Iraq on commercial missions, though, as Turkish businesses find money to be made rebuilding and supplying the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq. The trucks carry food and construction supplies into Iraq and return with Iraqi oil and other bargain Iraqi goods.

But the drivers here, most of them Kurds scratching out a living in impoverished southeast Turkey, often idle here a week or two, waiting to clear the border crossing itself. Yet 24-year-old driver Ayhan Yagiz, hauling potatoes and cement to northern Iraq, says he has no choice.

AYHAN YAGIZ, Truck Driver (through translator): This is where we make money, at this crossing point. There is no factory here for us to work in. If there were, I wouldn't go, because when I go to Iraq I feel like I'm going to Hell. I don't like it.

MARGARET WARNER: The frustrations are so great that some drivers look enviously at the growing independence of Iraqi Kurds. They dream of the economic possibilities if Iraq breaks apart and Kurds there establish their own independent state in the oil-rich north.

Twenty-eight-year-old Ethen Ozer says Turkey's Kurds might be better off breaking away to join an independent Kurdistan.

ETHEN OZER, Truck Driver (through translator): If there is no business to do here, maybe they will have some there so we can go and work there. And if there's no work there, they could come and work here. We want to unite because there is unemployment; we have nothing to do.

MARGARET WARNER: It is that sentiment, that Turkey's Kurds may find the grass greener on the other side of the border, that strikes at the very heart of a Turkish nation borne from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. And it makes Turks even more suspicious of U.S. intentions in Iraq, says Cengiz Candar, a columnist with the Turkish daily Bugun.

CENGIZ CANDAR, Bugun Newspaper: Well, in the Turkish psyche or in the Turkish subconscious, the concern and even fear of partition, of losing territories, is strongly embedded, because, after all, this is a country which has a legacy of an empire which shrinked.

MARGARET WARNER: At the hands of the West?

CENGIZ CANDAR: At the hands of the West during the last 100 years.

MARGARET WARNER: But in Diyarbakir, the largest city in predominantly-Kurdish southeastern Turkey, it's not clear that the Turks fears about breakaway Kurds are well-founded.

In the backstreets of this 5,000-year-old walled city, carpenters make tables, chairs and doors to order. For decades, they've complained about being discriminated against by successive Turkish governments, banned from using their language in public, on television or radio, or in official business. So some do yearn for independence, but on their own, not with the Kurds of Iraq.

HUSSEIN ADANIR, Carpenter (through translator): Of course we want an independent Kurdish state. This is our homeland; this is our land, our language. We are Kurds.

MARGARET WARNER: Others say they simply want an end to the bloodshed. They argue that neither the militants in the PKK nor the Turkish military vowing to crush them, much less the capital, Ankara, with its promises of investment, is looking out for Kurds' best interests.

SHERIF URAKI, Carpenter (through translator): At the moment, no one is fighting for us. We're like a flock without a shepherd. We're going somewhere, but we have no idea where.

A possible Kurdish state?

Osman Baydemir
Mayor of Diyarbakir
We believe that, once Turkey institutes the democratization process fully, Kurds living in Turkey won't really be looking towards Iraq, but everyone else will be looking towards Diyarbakir, Ankara and Istanbul.

MARGARET WARNER: The Turkish government has invested more money in the region and introduced some greater freedoms. Children in Diyarbakir still can't be taught Kurdish in regular schools but may now attend private Kurdish-language lessons after school. And local television stations now can broadcast Kurdish cultural programs for 45 minutes each day.

If the reforms continue, businessmen in Diyarbakir say they'd much rather remain part of a prosperous Turkey on a path to membership in the European Union than join with an isolated, independent Kurdistan. Abdulkadir Doghan is a successful businessman, enjoying dinner with his suppliers at a popular local restaurant.

ABDULKADIR DOGHAN, Businessman (through translator): Of course, if we enter the E.U., it will be much better. Things are good, but they will be even better if we enter the E.U. It will be better economically and will bring money and development to the region.

MARGARET WARNER: The elected mayor of Diyarbakir is Osman Baydemir, a Kurdish human rights lawyer whom Ankara insists is linked to the PKK. He denies that and also denies any separatist ambitions, as long as Turkey continues to expand freedoms for the Kurds.

MAYOR OSMAN BAYDEMIR, Diyarbakir, Turkey (through translator): We believe that, once Turkey institutes the democratization process fully, Kurds living in Turkey won't really be looking towards Iraq, but everyone else will be looking towards Diyarbakir, Ankara and Istanbul.

MARGARET WARNER: But back in the Turkish capital, Ankara, the national government is warning that the more immediate problem is security. It's under pressure from the Turkish military and public opinion to get the U.S. to crack down on the PKK in northern Iraq or let the Turkish army do the job instead.

General Baser has been appointed to work with a former American NATO commander to come up with a solution, but he warns that the Turkish government won't wait for long.

GEN. EDIP BASER: I cannot talk about its timing exactly, but I am sure it will not be later than a couple of months.

MARGARET WARNER: That soon?

GEN. EDIP BASER: They should feel -- yes, that soon. They should start considering and discussing the options they have open to them.

MARGARET WARNER: The same goes, he says, if Iraq disintegrates into all-out, country-wide civil war, which would threaten ethnic Turks inside Iraq.

GEN. EDIP BASER: You cannot just sit and watch when your neighbor's house is on fire, OK? You've got to do something about it, because that fire may come into your house or your yard.

MARGARET WARNER: So Turkey is watching closely as Washington debates what to do about Iraq. Foreign Minister Gul says Turkey wants to be part of that conversation, and he warns the U.S. not to entertain any notion of letting Iraq split apart.

ABDULLAH GUL: If it is divided, how are you going to share resources? Do you think it will be peaceful? Definitely not. Another civil war, another turmoil will start over there, the dark years.

MARGARET WARNER: Darker years that the Turks say the United States must do everything it can to avoid, to rescue not only its mission in Iraq, but its relationship with what is still America's most reliable, stable, democratic ally in the Muslim world.