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Turkey: Ankara Resigned To Fate Of War In Iraq

  • Zamira Eshanova

Turkey's possible role in a U.S.-led war against Iraq is spurring debate not only in parliament but also among ordinary Turks. The country is split on the subject. But with the plunging value of the Turkish lira and the country's continuing economic problems, many are coming to accept the fact that Turkey has no choice but to cooperate with the United States. RFE/RL's reports on the mood in Turkey's capital, Ankara.

Ankara, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tunali Hilmi is normally one of the liveliest streets in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Locals say the street, known for its stylish boutiques, restaurants, and cafes, is also a good barometer of the capital's mood. These days Tunali Hilmi is almost empty.

Ismail, a 40-year-old food seller on Tunali Hilmi, said life on the street has changed in recent weeks as speculation has mounted over a possible war in neighboring Iraq -- and over Turkey's role in that war. "Look at Ankara. You don't see much movement here. Because these days people don't want to go out and spend their money," Ismail said.

This sentiment is reinforced by 67-year-old Makhmudbey, a shoe shiner. He said that normally people would be lining up to have their shoes polished, but today he has almost no customers. "The war hasn't started yet, but it will start any moment. That's why my business is dead. Because people don't want spend their money on these small things," Makhmudbey said.

Accepting one's fate is one of the main tenets of the Islamic faith. And talk these days in Ankara shows that many Turks have already accepted their destiny, although with difficulty.

A group of students are waiting for a bus. They say that in recent weeks they have taken part in demonstrations against the war, but now they have quit. They say Turkey has no choice but to accept reality and cooperate with the United States -- these words are hanging in the air in Ankara.

Satilmish, a 50-year-old taxi driver, used to drive a truck back and forth to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War. That business ended with economic sanctions that drastically reduced economic contact with Iraq. He said he believes Turkey ought to be involved in the war and to cooperate with the Americans. "I absolutely don't want any war. But today there is no way to avoid the war. That's why Turkey has a strong obligation to take part in this war," Satilmish said.

Many Turks say their main concern is not with Iraq but with the weak state of the Turkish economy and the threat posed by Kurdish separatism in the southeast. Turkey is home to a large Kurdish population, and many here fear that a war may unleash a resurgence of separatist violence as Turkey's Kurds unite with Kurds in northern Iraq.

In return for temporary U.S. deployment or their transit to northern Iraq, many Turks say they want their government to secure from the Americans control over Kurdish issues.

Ismail, the food seller, said the Kurdish issue has forced a lot of people to change their minds and support a government decision that would allow U.S. troops to use their airspace and military bases for a war. Turkey was expected soon to decide whether to grant the U.S. military the right to use Turkish airspace.

"Turkey doesn't want this war at all. What is forcing our involvement in the war is not only money. There is a Kurdish problem. If the Kurds were to create an independent state, it would be a disaster -- or a second PKK [Kurdish separatist party] for Turkey. As you know, we lost 30,000 people because of the PKK and don't want this nightmare to be repeated," Ismail said.

The greatest hope is that any war would be short and that Turkey would be involved in the postwar reconstruction. That would bring the prospect of economic growth and perhaps even more U.S. aid.