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ANKARA, TURKEYUnder the watchful gaze of police in riot gear, roughly 1500 antiwar protesters marched in zigzag formation across central Ankara on Saturday, chanting "No war!" and carrying signs that denounced "American aggression" and labeled the United States a terrorist state.
The demonstration, which quickly dissipated in a small pedestrian square in the Kizilay city district, is the latest in a series of protests held across Turkey, a critical U.S. ally that has expressed deep reservations over the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein by force.
Turkey is the only NATO member with a predominantly Muslim population, and shares a heavily guarded border with Iraq. It was an important U.S. and British military staging ground during the Persian Gulf War, but that conflict triggered a devastating blow to the Turkish economy, as well as a refugee crisis caused by Kurds fleeing northern Iraq.
Many Turks now fear that renewed warfare in the Middle East would again send the country's fragile economy over the edge. War talk has already caused the stock market to dip. "Our economy is hanging by a thread," said one protester named Bircan, who declined to give his last name. "If there is war, it will fall from under us."
Today, however, as rain clouds gathered overhead, and a crowd of students with fists raised chanted antiwar and anti-American slogans, other demonstrators expressed concerns extending far beyond the country's economic problems. Turkey's antiwar movement draws equally from rightwing, Islamic, and leftist groups.
Yilmaz Demirel, 48, a stage actor, stopped to explain: "War with Iraq? It is just another example of American imperialism. In my opinion, the United States is the world's biggest terrorist state, and should remove its presence from the Middle EastTurkey, included."
Currently, squadrons of U.S. and British fighter planes leave from Turkey's Incirlik Air Base, located on the country's eastern Mediterranean coast, to patrol and enforce the U.N. mandated no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
In recent weeks, Washington has been pressuring Turkey for increased access to Incirlik, along with a number of other Turkish military installations, so that U.S. war planners could potentially open a northern front against Saddam Hussein's regime.
On Sunday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, visited Incirlik. The following day, amid an earlier round of antiwar protesting in the Turkish capital, Myers came to Ankara to speak with Turkey's defense minister, Vecdi Gonul, as well as the country's top army officer, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok.
Publicly, the Turkish government has refused to participate in a war conducted without explicit U.N. Security Council approval.
Earlier this week, Turkey hosted a regional summit intended to alter the climate of inevitability growing around the path to war, and to create the political room for peaceful resolution to the crisis. The summit included foreign ministers from Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria -all neighbors of Iraq - as well as diplomatic representatives from Egypt.
Most recently, Turkey's highest political leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan - speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland - excoriated the U.S. government for its war fever. "Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "No one is interested in eliminating their own weapons of mass destruction. They're interested in strengthening their own weapons of mass destruction."
Turkey's popular anti-war sentiment one poll puts it at 80 percent has been a significant factor in the diplomatic tightrope Turkish leaders have had to walk between satisfying a frustrated electorate, wary neighbors, and the world's only superpower. But some analysts believe that Turkey's open criticism of U.S. war plans will, in the final analysis, not prevent it from providing at least some form of military support for a coalition assembled to attack Iraq.
The current government, which has been lead by the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP, since November, is held in deep suspicion by a large number of Turks, including the country's powerful generals, who favor the secular system of government established here by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
"Our leaders are not serious about looking for a peaceful option, they are just trying to demonstrate their willingness to listen to people," said Ismail Boyraz, deputy director for the national office of Turkey's Human Rights Association, which co-sponsored today's protest, as well as a "peace train" of approximately 90 demonstrators who traveled from Istanbul to Incirlik. "In the end, they will decide to cooperate with the Americans."
That decision may be aided by a $14 billion U.S. financial assistance package, reported to be on the table as compensation for whatever losses Turkey may incur during a potential war. But the cost to the United States may be much greater.
Boyraz, sitting in an office riddled with bullet holes from an assassination attempt on the Human Rights Association's former executive director put it this way: "Right now nearly the entire country is against a war, and anti-American sentiment is growing. If the United States commits itself to an attack, those sentiments will only get stronger."