ANKARA, TURKEY—Under 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 East—Turkey, 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
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
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
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