An army playing politics or flexing its muscles?


TURKEY:With 50,000 Turkish soldiers on the Iraqi border, it is easy to understand fears Turkey might be about to take on the PKK in northern Iraq, writes Nicholas Birchin Istanbul

50,000 Turkish soldiers on the Iraqi border, a ban on civilian flights in three southeastern provinces, rumours of cross-border raids and shelling, and an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday of civilian and military leaders: it is easy to understand fears Turkey might be about to invade northern Iraq.

After a month in which 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that's exactly what many Turks are hoping will happen.

Turkey's army looks keen too, with chief of staff Yasar Buyukanit continuing to insist a campaign against PKK camps in northern Iraq would be of military value.

Privately, though, senior officers say they know such an operation would likely be catastrophic.

The Iraqi Kurds have made it clear they would fight against it. Baghdad, Washington and Brussels are all opposed.

"The PKK's sole desire is to pull Turkey into the Iraqi quagmire", one senior Turkish officer says. "We won't oblige."

Yet the army continues to put on pressure. Late last week, in an echo of the April 27th coup threat it posted on its website, it issued a midnight web statement calling on the "great Turkish nation to show its mass opposition" to terrorism.

"This has nothing to do with the PKK", says Mehmet Ali Birand, Turkey's best-known political analyst.

"The army is playing politics. They're trying to weaken the government before elections" due on July 22 th.

The appeal to public anger at the flow of coffins from the southeast is working. At one funeral last Monday, parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc was jostled by a furious crowd calling the government "cowards" and "traitors".

The army's call for "mass opposition" to the PKK has also found an echo, with one NGO announcing plans for a series of rallies starting on 24th June.

Run by a retired general, the semi-civilian Kemalist Thought Association also organised the huge secularist protests in April and May.

Under mounting pressure, Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan finally spoke out on Tuesday, telling reporters there were 5,000 PKK members in Turkey and 500 in Iraq.

"Has the fight against terrorism in Turkey ended that we have the luxury of dealing with . . . Iraq?" he asked.

He also described the nationalist demonstrations at funerals as "disrespectful" of the dead.

His words convinced most observers that the chances of any major policy change on the PKK before elections is very slim. What worries them more is the increasingly authoritarian tone of Turkish politics.

There is growing talk that the Turkish terror campaign might lead to a postponement of elections.

As troop activities increase, Kurds in the southeast fear a return of martial law.

Above all, when - in its message last week - the army blamed terrorism on "the distorted thinking of those who directly or indirectly support" changes to Turkey's unitary structure, it reminded many of the 1990s, when critical discussion of the Kurdish issue was all but criminalised.

"Countless people in this country think changes are needed, myself included," comments Tarhan Erdem, a politician-turned-pollster. "Distorted thinking? I can't believe it!"