Presence of U.S. troops alarms town in Turkey

Soldiers' alleged mission is modernizing bases, yet wary residents fear war

March 13, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MARDIN, Turkey - The four laconic American soldiers standing guard in the rain yesterday outside a derelict factory compound didn't look all that pleased to be here, on the outskirts of this ancient city overlooking the plains of Mesopotamia.

The residents of Mardin weren't pleased, either.

They have nothing personal against the scores of lightly armed American soldiers who began mysteriously arriving at the compound last month, they say. But Mardin's citizens also say the soldiers symbolize the threat of something that few can stomach: more warfare in the region.

"Nobody wants the war, you know," said Fethullah Duyan, 28, an unemployed architect whose father is leasing the site of a flour mill and cotton-seed press to the American military. "We have no problem with the soldiers. We are against the policy of Bush."

American supporters of a war against Iraq argue that toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could help bring democratic reform to the Middle East, and peace and prosperity to Iraq. Critics warn, however, that war risks destabilizing the region and creating a flood of refugees. Many residents of Mardin seem to be persuaded by that gloomier view.

The Mardin "Pure Oil" plant has become well known as the destination of hundreds of American military trucks that have traveled in recent days from the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. Part of the compound, residents here say, looks as if it's being prepared for use as a hospital, presumably for battlefield casualties. Scores of military vehicles and trailers sit parked in the plant's parking lot.

The compound sits only about 170 miles from the border crossing into Iraq.

The United States had hoped to use Turkey as a staging area for an invasion force of more than 60,000 troops, who would enter Iraq from the north as other forces invaded from Kuwait, in the south. Turkey's parliament voted 12 days ago against that large American deployment. Now, with trucks, soldiers and supplies moving into the 120,000-square-foot factory, lawmakers and peace activists are outraged.

The Turkish military insists the activity here is part of an agreement reached in February to let the United States modernize Turkish bases. Also, Turkey's newly designated prime minister, Recept Tayyip Erdogan, might ask Parliament to reverse itself and open the door to American troops.

The compound was jammed yesterday with small, canvas-covered trucks and shipping containers. No tanks, artillery or other heavy arms were in sight.

This area is home to many of Turkey's 9 million Kurds, an ethnic minority that also dominates northern Iraq and parts of Iran. While many Iraqi Kurds support military action against Baghdad, many Kurds on this side of the border do not, in part because they fear re-igniting a civil war waged here by Kurdish separatists. Nor do they want to provoke the government into imposing harsher restrictions on Kurdish culture.

The region's economy depends on trade - legal and otherwise - with the Kurds of Northern Iraq and the regime in Baghdad. That trade has all but collapsed, Mardin residents say, in recent months.

Duyan said that his father's plant, which in the past has shipped cotton-seed oil and flour to Iraq, employed 500 people last year. Now, 250 people are on the payroll.

"It's like 1991, during the first gulf war," he said, sitting in a concrete guard shack about 100 yards from the American compound, surrounded by some of his current and former employees. "In fact, I think this time it is much worse."

His family has benefited by having the Americans as a tenant (though he says his father won't tell him how much the Americans are paying in rent). But he says the soldiers at the compound aren't much help to the local economy.

The Bush administration, he suggests, could accomplish more by bolstering trade than by sending troops. "He could help us without war," he said.

Hadi Kilinc, a 28-year-old unemployed university graduate, said that his fellow Kurds in Iraq would be better off without Hussein, but that the violence a war would trigger might be too high a price to pay.

Mardin, which has been conquered and colonized by a succession of armies and empires, is home to Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Assyrian Christians. They say they live together peacefully and don't want anything to change that. "The Americans are here for war," said Saladin Abukan, a 38-year-old cafeteria worker in an elementary school. "If they were here to bring peace to the Middle East, we would welcome them."

At Ibrahim Capsa's tiny neighborhood restaurant in one of Mardin's working-class neighborhoods, there is more than a hint of bitterness. "When you say `Americans,' I think of death, because they spill the blood of Muslims," said Capsa, who says he recently refused to sell food to someone when he found out it was for American soldiers at the base. "Saddam Hussein is not an honest man, but we are thinking about the people of Iraq. There is no difference, to me between Saddam and Bush. People who want to see blood are dishonest people."

Everyone in Capsa's restaurant shared a deep skepticism about the United States' motives. "America doesn't just want Iraq's oil," Capsa said, to murmurs of agreement. "It wants the whole Middle East."

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