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Iraq: Turkey Regards Crisis As A Quiet Issue

Turkey and Iraq are building closer ties a decade after the Gulf War. In the second part of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how the Iraq crisis is regarded in Turkey.

Istanbul, 18 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For 10 years, U.S. and British warplanes have taken off daily from Turkey's Incirlik airbase to patrol over northern Iraq. And during the past two years, the planes -- flying from southern Turkey -- have frequently bombed Iraqi air defenses which challenge them, causing Iraqi casualties.

The bombings have made the Turkish airbase a sore point between Turkey and Iraq, which accuses its neighbor of aiding what it calls a bombing campaign against it.

But the charges seldom receive a public reply from the Turkish government.

They have gotten little attention as well from Turkish political parties, thereby disappointing Iraqi hopes the bombing issue might become a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies.

The lack of Turkish public interest in the air war over Iraq is surprising because the northern no-fly zone initially was opposed by some Turkish politicians when it was created without a UN-mandate by the United States, Britain, and France in 1991.

The northern no-fly zone was declared after some 1 million Iraqi Kurds fled northern Iraq in the wake of a failed rebellion following the Gulf War. It was meant to reassure them they could safely live in northern Iraq without fear of air reprisals by Baghdad.

One outspoken critic of the northern no-fly zone's creation was Bulent Ecevit, now Turkey's prime minister. Then a left-wing opposition leader, Ecevit criticized the government for too readily following the U.S. lead in determining its regional policies. Islamist politicians were also critical. They wanted to see Turkey strengthen its cultural and political ties with the Muslim East.

But Turkish analysts say that over the past decade, the public debate over the no-fly zone debate has disappeared in their country, along with much of the polarization which previously characterized Turkey's politics.

Ozdam Sanberk of the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation says that recent years have seen a migration of Turkish political parties toward the mainstream. Parliamentary elections last year resulted in a winning coalition of left and nationalist parties at the expense of the Islamists. That, in turn, has put many who once criticized Ankara for too closely following Washington and London into the position of having to implement Turkey's past agreements with both. Ozdam Sanberk says:

"At the moment, all the poles of the Turkish political spectrum are now more or less in the same political establishment. We have a coalition government which includes a far-right party, a center-left party, and center-right party. So who is going to bring this issue into the political agenda?"

The current strongest opposition force -- the Islamists -- held power in the mid-1990s. During that time they, too, were responsible for implementing Turkey's past agreements, bringing their Virtue Party close to the government's position on Iraq today.

In one measure of the Turkish government's consistency on Iraq over the years, Ankara has stuck to supporting the northern no-fly zones even as another NATO-ally, France, has withdrawn from it. Paris stopped participating in the policing of the northern zone over Iraq in 1996 and now maintains only a partial commitment to the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

Turkish politicians say that when their parties discuss Iraq today, they limit the discussion to humanitarian issues only.

Oya Akgonenc, a Virtue Party parliamentary deputy from Ankara, says all parties share a strong sympathy for the suffering of the Iraqi people under the UN sanctions and look for occasions to say so:

"Now that so many years have passed, after a decade, we feel sorry for the people of Iraq, not the administration [in Baghdad]. And we try to express our thoughts. Especially, whenever there is a new action [to extend the UN's oil-for-food program for Iraq], usually people from all parties give statements to the effect that there should be an effort to make peace, to change the situation, and improve the condition of the people of Iraq."

But Akgonenc says parliament's statements on the issue stop short of calling on the government to take any action because it recognizes the Turkish government's official commitment to observe UN resolutions on Baghdad.

Still, the sanctions on Iraq are genuinely unpopular in Turkey, partly because they also have had a strong impact on Turkey's own economy through lost trade with its neighbor. This unpopularity is giving rise to efforts by the Turkish government to argue privately in international circles for a rethinking of the UN sanctions policy even as publicly it stays quiet on the subject.

A top Turkish Foreign Ministry official (unnamed) told our correspondent that Turkey's diplomats are telling everyone quietly and privately that it is time to rethink whether economic sanctions are as effective a tool now as when they started.

The official said that, while Ankara continues to attach great importance to Iraq's disarmament under UN resolutions, it feels Turkey has suffered tremendous losses from the Gulf Crisis. He said these losses, plus what he called the security threat to Turkey from the power vacuum in northern Iraq, cannot be allowed to continue forever.

Turkey estimates its losses since 1990 from UN sanctions on Iraq at some $40 billion. Prior to the Gulf Crisis, Iraq was Turkey's fourth-largest trading partner and its major supplier of crude oil.