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Turkey's tightrope: Public vs. the U.S.

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
The Turkish government seeks a way to balance the overwhelming opposition to war from its citizens with the United States' desire to base 40,000 troops within its borders to stage what might be a crucial ground invasion of Iraq from the north.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 25, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey -- It might have been the weather -- 28 degrees and snowing -- that kept patrons from Onur Yilmaz's outdoor lottery stand Monday. But Yilmaz had another explanation.

"It's the war," he said, as a biting wind ruffled row upon row of scratchoff tickets. "People here are stressed out about war and they're thinking of things other than the lottery."

If there's one good bet in Turkey's capital city, it is that war with Iraq is inevitable and Turkey will play a major role when it starts. But most of Turkey's 70-million people want neither war nor their country's involvement. That puts tremendous pressure on the Turkish parliament as it decides -- likely today -- whether to let the United States base thousands of troops on Turkish soil.

Few doubt the outcome of the vote, no matter how much they dread it.

"To stay out of the war and say "no' to the United States would mean very radical and systemic changes in Turkish politics," says Hakan Arslan, a doctoral candidate at Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "They are very close allies with the United States, and they have the feeling they have no other choice, which is true in a sense."

With five U.S. ships waiting to unload tanks and other armored vehicles at the Turkish port of Iskenderun, Turks are registering their opposition in myriad ways:

At 8 each night, millions of people throughout the country turn off their lights for a minute of protest.

On walls and buildings, huge posters printed in fiery reds and yellows urge: "Don't let the children die."

On radio stations, callers dedicate songs to "all those against the war." One Istanbul clothing store advertises: "No War -- Get a Discount."

Monday night, 25 demonstrators began a vigil outside the massive gates of parliament, then were ordered by police to move to a park 2 miles away. They vowed to sit there in a driving snow until legislators vote "no" to war.

Public demonstrations have been fairly small and nonviolent. But anti-American sentiment runs high even in Ankara, a pro-Western capital where a major thoroughfare is named after John F. Kennedy.

"I don't mind the American people, but I think the government is a bad government," says Emek Yilmaz, a college student. "Most people know this war is because of oil."

When the Bush administration began considering an attack on Iraq, it expected Turkey to fall quickly into line. This moderate, democratic nation is a longtime NATO member and was part of the 1991 coalition against Saddam Hussein. Since then, Turkey has hosted U.S. and British fighter jets that protect the semi-independent Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

For a second war, the United States wants to use Turkish ports and airfields. More controversially, it also hopes to deploy as many as 90,000 ground troops in the country to launch a northern front against Iraq, a move that most experts think would considerably shorten the conflict.

But winning Turkey's cooperation for war has been surprisingly tough. Negotiations that "started off as a carpet-shop haggle . . . turned into an alarming high-wire act," as London's Financial Times put it.

Turkey, whose economy never fully recovered from the last war, initially asked the United States for a staggering $92-billion in grants and loan guarantees, the Financial Times said.

"The U.S. not only needs Turkey to carry out a war in Iraq but also needs Turkey to build peace in that country" wrote a columnist in the Turkish Daily News, echoing a common sentiment.

"Americans should appreciate that . . . Turkey is a model of the kind of secular Muslim democracy that Washington says it favors for Iraq and the wider Middle East."
Public demonstrations in Turkey have been small and nonviolent, but Turks find myriad other ways to voice their opposition to war.

As the negotiations dragged on, the sides haggled not just over money but other conditions. Turkey wanted the United States to pay tax on all military equipment brought into the country and $150-million to transport the 4th Infantry Division from Iskenderun almost 500 miles to the Iraqi border.

Negotiators even spent hours discussing who would pay for printing the ID cards for U.S. troops, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said.

By late last week, talks were so bogged down that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly said Turkey's involvement was important but not essential. It appeared some 40 U.S. troop and transport ships might have to head for Kuwait via the Suez Canal, delaying the start of war by at least two weeks.

But after more talks this weekend, Turkey reportedly settled for $6-billion. There was still enough mistrust that Turkey's new leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demanded the Bush administration put it in writing.

In return, the United States agreed to reduce its planned deployment to no more than 40,000 troops.

Turkey also might get $20-billion in loans from international institutions.

Among the many sticking points between the countries was how to handle northern Iraq's oil fields and its 3.5-million Kurds. Turkey, which fought a 15-year battle with its restive Kurdish population, fears Kurds in northern Iraq would seize the oil fields and use the riches to finance an independence move that could include Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Turkish and U.S. negotiators reportedly agreed the United States will control the fields during and immediately after a war. Turkey also will send more of its troops into northern Iraq, in addition to the thousands it has in the region to monitor Kurdish activity.

America and Turkey agree "a Kurdistan should not be set up," said Yakis, the foreign minister.

That kind of statement has angered the Kurds, who fear their interests again will be ignored as outside powers determine their future.

And even non-Kurdish Turks complain about the haggling between their country and the United States over preparations for a war that 95 percent of Turks oppose.

"Turkey already is in a very deep recession and war will aggravate this," said Arslan, the doctoral candidate. ". . . No money is equal to the unemployment and suffering this war will cause."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com .

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