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Vote a loss for U.S. and Turkey

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2003

CIZRE, Turkey -- And Turkey was supposed to be the easy part.

The surprising refusal of Turkey's parliament to let the United States base 62,000 troops there is the first of what could be many unforeseen consequences of a war against Iraq. The defeat was a triple whammy: It forced a major rethinking of U.S. war plans; shook the close ties between the United States and Turkey; and threw this country into turmoil.

"I was surprised by the vote," said Omer Yurtseven, chairman of the international trade department at Ankara's Cankaya University. "By the way they talked, I thought they had the votes in their hand."

Unless parliament reconsiders the deal, which seems unlikely any time soon, both the United States and Turkey would come out losers.

The Pentagon had expected to use Turkey, a NATO ally, as the northern front for an attack against neighboring Iraq. To that end, it wanted to base 62,000 ground troops here along with 255 war planes and 65 helicopters.

In return, Turkey would have gotten $15-billion in grants and loans to help revive its battered economy, still suffering from the 1991 Gulf War.

Now Turkey is out the money and the United States must decide if the thousands of U.S. troops and tons of equipment waiting near the Turkish port of Iskenderun should be diverted to Kuwait.

What went wrong?

Turkey's 550-member parliament undoubtedly was influenced by public opinion. Polls show that more than 90 percent of Turks oppose a war. And in a nation where large demonstrations are rare, lawmakers preparing to vote Saturday couldn't ignore 100,000 protesters marching through the streets of the capital shouting "Yankee go home!"

The leaders of Turkey's new ruling party, which came to power in November, also could have better warned parliament of the consequences of rejecting the U.S. proposal, one expert said.

"I don't think they conveyed the urgency of this economic package to the deputies," Yurtseven said. "Turkey's economy was very badly hurt by the previous war and . . . Turkey will be hurt a lot more if this bill doesn't pass. We will not be getting this aid and I don't think there will be any contracts to rebuild Iraq."

On Monday, Turkey's stock market and the Turkish lira dropped by more than 12 percent in value because of concern that Saturday's vote would cost the country badly needed financial help.

But the real reason parliament rejected the troop deal may lie in tensions between the new Islamist government and the powerful military, stewards of Turkey's secular tradition.

Anyone familiar with modern Turkish history could have seen the deal was in trouble when the National Security Council, made up of military and civilian leaders, refused to take a position the day before parliament's vote. The televised images of stern-faced generals underscored this fact: Although Turkey is a democracy, the military remains a dominant force.

It was a military hero, Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish republic in 1923. He dragged his backward Muslim country into the modern age by erasing almost every tie to the old Ottoman Empire and the rest of the Muslim world.

Ataturk banned the fez, the traditional male headgear, as a symbol of "ignorance, negligence and fanaticism." He mandated that Turks wear Western-style dress, replaced the Muslim calendar with the European one and even ordered the Koran translated from Arabic into a new written language based on the Latin alphabet.

"Without Ataturk's vision . . . without his astonishing boldness in sweeping away traditions accumulated over centuries, today's Turkey would not exist," writes Stephen Kinzer in Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.

Since Ataturk's death in 1938, the Turkish military has seen itself as the keeper of his legacy. It steps in whenever it thinks the government is going dangerously astray -- most recently in 1997 when it forced the resignation of a prime minister whose Welfare Party was fanning Islamic fundamentalism and turning Turkey away from the West.

The military now appears suspicious of Turkey's new ruling party, an Islamist group called Justice and Development. Its leader, the charismatic Recep Tayipp Erdogan, was once jailed for reading a poem that a court said encouraged jihad.

"In a lot of people's minds -- including mine and I'm sure the military's -- this is kind of an extension of the Welfare Party, which was way too fundamentalist," Yurtseven said. "These people claim to be democratic but we have our doubts."

Another expert thinks the military hoped a vote in favor of the highly unpopular troop deal would discredit Erdogan and his party.

"I believe the military actually wanted this to pass and cause the maximum amount of damage to the present government," said Grenville Byford, an affiliate of the Caspian studies program at Harvard University. "It was a political calculation on their part that went spectacularly wrong."

The military reportedly was shocked and disappointed by the outcome of the vote; Justice Party deputies were said to be furious that the military played politics with a matter of national security. Nonetheless, they have "indefinitely" postponed another vote on the U.S. proposal. Most experts agree parliament would reject it again, which could lead to a "no-confidence" vote that would topple Erdogan's 4-month-old government.

Byford calls Erdogan a "very fine man," and said he and other party leaders were courageous in supporting the troop deal despite overwhelming public opposition.

"If we learned one thing, it's that they are not Islamists, they are politicians trying to do what is in the best interests of the country."

If the deal ultimately collapses, Byford predicts a "considerable" strain in U.S.-Turkish relations.

"In the short term Congress at least will not look very kindly on the country," he said. "I hope that in the long term people in Washington will recognize the underlying reason Turkey is an important country. It is the only Muslim democracy and a strategically important place."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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