Despite widespread public opposition, Turkey ready to fight Iraq if attacked WAR IN THE GULF

January 27, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANKARA, Turkey -- As President Torgut Ozal quietly opens this country to the threat of war from Baghdad, he does so amid overwhelming public opposition.

But the criticism falls silent at the prospect that an Iraqi reprisal could mean an attack on Turkish soil.

"Public opinion would change if there were an attack. Definitely," said Mehmet Ozsuer, a 46-year-old electrician.

"If [Saddam Hussein] strikes Turkey, he'll get into deep trouble," said another worker, who opposes Turkish involvement in the conflict for the moment. "The Turkish people are very brave. We're not afraid to die."

Last week, the Ankara government admitted that it had been allowing U.S. planes to launch air strikes against Iraq from the joint Turkish-American base at Incirlik in southern Turkey.

Turkey had requested 42 jets from NATO's mobile allied force and96 U.S. fighter-bombers and other aircraft. It has used 120,000 Turkish soldiers to tie up 100,000 Iraqi troops at the border and asked Washington for another four Patriot missile batteries in addition to the six already deployed near the southern border.

Last week, Iraq accused Turkey of "kneeling before the U.S.," and warned darkly of unspecified consequences."

The support for allied missions is winning Mr. Ozal appreciation in Washington, but domestically it is tearing apart the consensus on foreign policy this country has enjoyed for 68 years.

"This is not our business, to get involved in this conflict," said a Turk who teaches English at an air force base. "We have nothing to do with it."

Friday prayers from Istanbul to Tatvan in the southeast ended with pro-Saddam demonstrations outside mosques. Three women trying to gather signatures on anti-war petitions here were arrested. Police shot one protester dead in Tatvan, and in Istanbul, fundamentalists burned American and Israeli flags.

An opinion poll by the English-language Turkish Daily News showed 70 percent of the population opposing Turkey's direct PTC involvement in the war against Iraq, and 83 percent of the respondents believing that the American use of Incirlik could "drag Turkey into the war."

So sensitive is the matter of Turkish involvement that the government at first blocked CNN broadcasts of the activity at air bases here and banned the semi-official Anatolia Press Agency from relaying the news. Last week, it ordered journalists observing the base to stop reporting the number of sorties they were counting leaving Incirlik daily for Iraq.

At a lengthy meeting with newspaper editors last week, President Ozal gave them "voluntary guidelines" suggesting they omit place names and numbers in reports from the south, and he chided them for not being supportive enough of Turkish policy.

But some of those journalists left Mr. Ozal convinced that he was bringing his country dangerously close to war and narrowing Turkey's room for maneuver.

"It's now left to the discretion of Saddam Hussein whether or not Turkey gets involved," said Mumtaz Soysal, a widely-read columnist for the daily Milliyet. "But Ozal's done everything to get Turkey involved."

"The Americans will eventually leave the area, but the Arabs will still be here and we'll have to live with them," Behim Tashan, a department store guard, said as he stamped parking passes yesterday.

Mr. Ozal also has tried the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face to shake away fear, in a way shaming Turks into accepting the possibility of war.

"War is nothing to be afraid of," Mr. Ozal told a crowd at his presidential palace Wednesday.

"We have gotten used to luxury, and we don't want to lose it. But never forget that we are a nation of warriors."

Around the same time, his interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, reportedly complained that Turks living in the south have become "a nation of sissies."

Some predict that Mr. Ozal will in a sense leave his citizens, and a disapproving military, no choice but to support his choice.

If Turkey enters the war after an Iraqi attack against Turkey, patriotic reflexes will take over as the country rallies to confront the enemy.

"If [Saddam Hussein] attacks Turkey, he will unite Turkey," said a foreign ministry official who requested anonymity. "And I think this will be the case. No opposition will rise up and say, 'We cannot support a retaliation.' "

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