Protesters, troops meet near Iraq

Anti-war rallies continue in Turkey as U.S. hauls cargo into the region

March 15, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SILOPI, Turkey - A busload of anti-war protesters and a small group of American soldiers ran into each other on a lonely stretch of roadside north of here yesterday, near the border with Iraq.

It was an odd, awkward meeting between one group hoping to stop a war, and another, perhaps, planning for the start of one.

Both halted at a military checkpoint, about 50 yards apart. The Americans, escorted by an armored vehicle, were guests of the military and apparently engaged in surveying the road to Iraq. The protesters were heading into Silopi to erect a symbolic blockade on the road to Iraq; their documents were checked by the police. Both sides were separated by rifle-toting Turkish soldiers.

"Yankee go home!" one man bellowed in English, drawing nervous glances from the Americans. Finally, the checkpoint commander waved the peace advocates along, and the uncomfortable confrontation was over.

The Turkish people mounted mass protests across the nation yesterday, as they have every Friday for the past several weeks. But the sense of urgency and frustration appears to have grown as the United States' preparations for action against Iraq have intensified.

Parliament here refused to permit the United States to use the country as a staging area for an attack on Baghdad, deploying about 60,000 troops here, and polls show more than 90 percent of the public opposes conflict.

But new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan advocates helping the United States attack Iraq, in exchange for a package of loans and grants worth billions. He is expected to bring the issue up again early next week, although according to some reports, the most the United States is hoping for at this point is use of Turkish airspace.

Meanwhile, convoys of U.S. military trucks are hauling cargo into this remote region of Turkey from a Mediterranean port. And American troops have been spotted here, perhaps as part of an agreement to upgrade Turkish military bases.

So far there is no sign that the Americans have brought in heavy military equipment, such as tanks and artillery, or significant numbers of troops. Still, the presence of even small numbers of United States military personnel has persuaded many citizens here that they are being dragged against their will into the threatened conflict.

"We are totally against a war against the people of Iraq," said Pinar Omeroglu, an engineer who traveled hundreds of miles by bus from Ankara with the protesters.

The 40-odd demonstrators belong to four trade unions for doctors, teachers and other professional government employees. They were headed to Silopi, a dusty border town 10 miles north of Iraq, where they planned a symbolic blockade.

Omeroglu said all aboard the bus risked arrest or the loss of their jobs. Still, they were determined that their voices of protest would be heard in Turkey's capital, Ankara, and in Washington. But police and Silopi officials were waiting for them at the entrance to the town. Saying they had not been informed of the protest, officials wouldn't let them enter the city and asked them to turn around.

When the demonstrators started to march forward, a line of police locked arms and shoved them back. When the protesters sat down to block the road, the police shoved them to one side. A few activists tried to run past the police cordon but were caught and brought back.

Throughout, demonstrators chanted: "Murderer USA!" "No to war!" "This country and this people are not for sale!" and, in English, "Yankee go home!" All wore white vests emblazoned with the Turkish words Savasa Hayir, or "No to War."

When several American reporters went to the village of Sason on Thursday, the federally appointed governor graciously welcomed them into his office, served them tea and refused to make anything other than small talk. As they drove out of the village, they were followed for miles by security forces.

The area feels vulnerable, lying within the range of Iraqi missiles. And Dutch Patriot missile batteries, part of Turkey's NATO defenses, line the runways at the military airport in the city of Batman (pronounced baht-mahn). Foreign consultants working on major public works projects have threatened to pull out if the fighting starts.

But the biggest threat the region faces is likely to be economic.

One city official said businessmen postponed investments here once rumors of war started. Cut off from Iraqi oil in recent months, Batman's government-owned refinery - the largest in the country - is working far below capacity, government officials say, leaving hundreds of workers with little to do.

Lines of trucks three miles long once stretched to the Iraqi border. Now most of these trucks sit idle in fields. Before the crackdown on quasi-legal cross-border trade two years ago, one truck driver from the town of Mardin said his rig was worth $10,000. Now he couldn't sell it for $1,000.

Few here have lost more money because of the threatened war than Necat Nasiroglu, the 63-year-old president of Fernas Construction Co.

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