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In Many Turks' Eyes, U.S. Remains the Enemy

Hostility Bodes Ill For Efforts to Boost Americans' Image

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page A21

ISTANBUL, April 9 -- In Turkey, heralded as the model of a Westward-looking Muslim democracy, sales records were shattered this spring by a book that imagines a U.S. invasion of this nation, a longtime U.S. ally. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Turks regard that scenario as a real possibility.

Mainstream newspapers here routinely mock U.S. troops in Iraq, and many feature breathless but unsubstantiated reports of American atrocities there, including mythical accounts of troops harvesting organs from dead civilians. One paper announced the U.S. offensive against Fallujah in November with a photo illustration of President Bush wearing a swastika.

Turkish protesters in Istanbul demonstrated against the U.S.-led war in Iraq in March. Some 90 percent of Turks opposed the war, according to surveys. (Photos Murad Sezer -- AP)

Conspiracy theories, a staple topic at teahouses and water coolers, are now taken so seriously that in December the U.S. Embassy felt compelled to issue a statement denying that the United States had caused the tsunami in South Asia and, with it, the deaths of more than 200,000 people.

As the Bush administration ramps up efforts to improve the American image in the Muslim world, the magnitude of the challenge is starkly visible in this country of 70 million, long seen as a bridge between East and West. Polls suggest that few countries have turned more dramatically against the United States than Turkey.

The latest survey, gathered in February by the private Metropoll organization, found that four in 10 Turks regard the United States as their country's "biggest enemy." That is more than double the number who named Greece, the ancient rival Turkey has come to the brink of war with three times in the last half-century.

"Yes, definitely, the opinions are changing," said Ismail Baykus, 45, at the door of his stationery store in a middle-class Istanbul neighborhood. "Based on what we hear and see in the press, the Americans talk one way and then act another, especially when they say they will bring stability and peace to a region."

"They're all lies!" shouted an elderly fruit seller standing nearby. "All lies!"

By all accounts, the turnabout can be traced to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some 90 percent of Turks opposed the war, and their parliament voted to deny the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division permission to open a northern front against Iraq from Turkish territory.

When the war ended after just three weeks, 82 percent of Turks said they were disappointed that Iraq's military did not put up a better fight.

"It obviously all starts with Iraq," said a senior Western diplomat in Ankara. "All this is going on in the context of the U.S. sending 140,000 troops next door."

But more than two years later, U.S. officials voice growing concern that the rift between the two governments not only has not healed, but is deepening.

The tangle of sentiments working against Washington and any new effort to reverse the trend are not easily sorted. Nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the entire Middle East from Istanbul, plays a role. So does the fierce nationalism on which modern Turkey was founded in the 1920s by the revered Kemal Ataturk, who worked hard to push religion out of public life and orient the new nation-state toward the prosperity and progress he saw in the West.

But while Turkey is a secular republic, it is populated by Muslims, whose faith defines the community of Islamic believers as one body, the umma. When the Pew Research Center surveyed global attitudes on the Iraq invasion, Turkish "unfavorable" views toward the United States clustered around 80 percent, the same level reported in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

"It was obvious after September 11 that the United States was going to feel provoked and attack a Muslim country," said Sezai Oflaz, 33, carving meat in a kabob restaurant overlooking the Bosporus Strait, which divides Europe from Asia through the center of Istanbul.

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