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Business of war rolls on in Turkey, opposition or no

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003


DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- Although Turkey's parliament has yet to agree to let U.S. troops attack Iraq from Turkish bases, most Turks think it's only a matter of days before war begins.

That's why Takyeddin Pektas was checking out gas masks at Gumpa, a large hardware store in this city 150 miles from the Iraqi border.

"I'm not scared, but I want these for my children," said Pektas, owner of a company that makes oxygen tanks. He decided on the most expensive model, about $81, and will pay $486 to equip himself, his wife and their four kids.

Gumpa is the only store in Diyarbakir that stocks gas masks, and most of the 60 or so it has sold in recent weeks have gone to journalists. Another 1,000 masks are on order by Kurds in northern Iraq, who fear that Saddam Hussein may gas them as he did in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.

Most of Diyarbakir's 3-million residents are Kurds, too, but few can afford gas masks. This is one of Turkey's poorest areas because of years of fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels, who wanted a separate state before they finally declared a cease-fire in 1999.

Muhittin Bal, the store's owner, predicts any war with Iraq would be short. Which is fine with him: "Before rumors of war, people were standing in line to buy things," he says. "Now, as you can see it's almost empty."

* * *

Polls show 95 percent of Turkey's 70-million people don't want war. Among the opponents: Turkey's licensed tour guides and interpreters.

In a flurry of e-mails among themselves, many guides say members of their Professional Tour Guide Association should refuse to work with American soldiers because a war against Iraq is morally wrong.

"It is not logical to be interpreters for adventurers in the shape of soldiers sent here to serve a couple of New World bandit companies' dirty war," runs a typical e-mail.

Turkey has 9,000 licensed guides and interpreters who pride themselves on their professionalism. They must have either a four-year college degree and pass a proficiency exam in a foreign language, or go through a rigorous eight-month training program sponsored by Turkey's tourism ministry.

Earlier this year, guides were notified by e-mail of a "long-term job" opportunity paying $1,000 a month plus expenses. Fifteen guides accepted the offer before discovering that the potential employer was the U.S. military.

Apart from their moral outrage, the guides also think Uncle Sam's offer -- about $32 a day -- is far too cheap. The guides' standard rate: $112 a day.

* * *

Antiwar protesters have found unusual ways of getting their message across. At an Istanbul fashion show, male models wore gas masks and chemical/biological protection suits with "NO WAR" lettered across the front. Some female models wore little more than thongs. Not surprisingly, the show got big play in at least one major Turkish newspaper.

* * *

Few will ever make the Leading Hotels of the World guide, but there is a select group of lodgings that journalists swarm to in times of turmoil.

During the Bosnian civil war, it was the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo.

During the early days of the war on terror, it was the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, Pakistan.

During the 1991 Gulf War, it was the al-Rasheed in Baghdad. (Since then, the al-Rasheed has added a mosaic portrait of the first President Bush to the lobby floor, forcing American reporters to tromp over their ex-leader's face as they enter and exit.)

And now that Turkey may be the northern staging area for another attack on Iraq, Turkey's contribution to this elite cadre is the Grand Hotel Onsar in Cizre, about 35 miles from the Iraqi border.

Built in 1996, the 99-room hotel offers three amenities dear to foreign correspondents: Internet connections; cable TV with CNN and the BBC; and a menu that includes beer and wine.

The rates are also a bargain, although they have risen in the time-honored tradition of obscure hotels that suddenly find themselves in great demand. Single rooms were $30 in early January, when few journalists were in the region; now that hundreds are here, the rate is $50.

The Grand Hotel is owned by Sait Onuk, who also owns the Ford dealership next door.

"The hotel will do a good business but everything else will collapse" in event of war, Onuk says. "We are not afraid of chemicals but we are very anxious about our own economic situation."

Onuk was attracted to Cizre because it is near Habur gate, the main border crossing between Turkey and Iraq. Trade between the two countries plunged as a result of the Persian Gulf War, but rebounded after Turkish truckers began transporting oil under a U.N. program that lets Iraq sell oil for food and humanitarian items.

In 1999 and 2000, Onuk sold more Ford trucks than any other dealer in Turkey, he says. "Unfortunately, Sept. 11, 2001, came and the party stops again."

Onuk is pessimistic about the future. But that hasn't stopped him from promoting the Ford brand in hopes that someday the people of northern Iraq as well as southeastern Turkey will again be in the market for new cars and trucks.

On the highway leading to Habur gate there is only one billboard: "FORD," it says in huge letters.

And on everything from ashtrays to bars of soap, "Grand Hotel Onsar" is written in white script in a blue oval, just like the Ford logo.

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

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