War softens Turkish PM's Islamic zeal

Kurdish struggle is forcing Erbakan to dilute his fervour, writes Hugh Pope
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The Independent Online
Istanbul - The Turkish republic has conquered two of its most damaging political taboos: the fear of a pro-Islamic government, and of an automatic military intervention to prevent it.

But not even the all-embracing rhetoric of Necmettin Erbakan, the pro- Islamic Prime Minister who took office last Friday, nor his professions of friendship for Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbours, are likely to save him from a crash course in the taboos and violence of Turkey's equally old Kurdish problem.

Mr Erbakan will be haunted by decisions taken during the political uncertainty of the past nine months. With quiet support from its main ally, the United States, Turkey's republican establishment decided the time was ripe to target Syria, blaming it for harbouring the chief of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Aggressive Turkish speeches were made in Hatay, the former Syrian province of Alexandretta seized by Turkey in 1939 and claimed by Syria. A military co-operation agreement was signed with Israel. A mysterious bomb exploded in Damascus near the house of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Now Mr Ocalan is striking back, abandoning a frayed unilateral cease- fire. Last month the PKK shot up a pro-government television station near the Turkish Kurd town of Diyarbakir, killing nine people, mostly women and children. A militant then cut down the Turkish flag at the main congress of HADEP, the only surviving legal pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey. In its place he hung up the insignia of the PKK. Predictably, the Turks played into the militants' hands and arrested the HADEP leader, Murat Bozlak and 50 of its top officials.

Then came Turkey's first suicide bomb attack on Sunday night, in the remote, troubled eastern town of Tunceli. A Turkish military band had just finished playing the national anthem at an evening flag-lowering ceremony on the town square when a 24-year-old Kurdish militant, Zeynep Kinali, apparently pregnant, pushed forward. Shouting slogans in Kurdish, she exploded in a ball of flame that killed six soldiers and wounded 31.

That the Syrian-based PKK in Turkey should suddenly decide to use the same tactics as Hamas in Israel is doubtless coincidental. Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouq al- Shara, reacting to accusations of complicity, told the Turkish newspaper Milliyet: "You've got the wrong address."

But in many ways, Turkey, which for years has pursued an almost exclusively Westernising agenda of integration with Europe, is now finding its agenda more and more dominated by all kinds of addresses in the Middle East.

The military pact with Israel proved it was ready to act in harmony with the US-fostered concept of an Israeli-Turkish-Jordanian alliance, unnerving the main target, Syria, irritating Egypt and infuriating Iran. Any new regional initiative by Turkey, with its 65 million people and important economy, undoubtedly seemed a threat to the established Arab order.

Signs of strain between Turkey and Iran also surfaced last week, with Iranian claims that Turkish helicopters had targeted a border village and killed six civilians near the area affected by PKK-Turkish fighting. Turkey said the Iranian claim was a pretext to allow a mob to burn the Turkish flag in front of a Turkish consulate.

Iran, Iraq and Syria, therefore, responded with alacrity to the possibility of a new start with Mr Erbakan, who talked of Islamic brotherhood and a newly united Middle East. Iran's President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, invited him to Tehran. The Iraqi newspaper Babil promised "economic and non- economic" benefits if he helped Iraq overcome its UN trade embargo. Even the Syrian state newspaper Tishreen cautiously welcomed a new start.

But Mr Erbakan's vision of Turkey's Middle East role is more that of an Ottoman-style leader. And while the need to consolidate power remains his overwhelming priority, he appears to be ready to dispense with his Islamic ideals.

Mr Erbakan has already abandoned his promise to grant ethnic rights to the Kurds. The first item on his government programme, read out on Saturday, was support for the army's purely military solution to the problem. A promise was made not to interfere with international and strategic agreements "if they do not damage national security". Positive-sounding contacts have started already between his Welfare Party and the Israeli embassy.

Turkish commentators are divided about the future of Mr Erbakan's coalition with True Path Party leader, Tansu Ciller, which faces a close parliamentary vote of confidence next Monday. But some are begging for a new approach to the Kurdish conflict that has killed 20,000 people since 1984. "It is the one-dimensional struggle against the PKK that is making the people in the south-east revolt," Gungor Mengi, chief columnist of Sabah newspaper, said.