Some Turks Question Timing of Iraq Push

An Istanbul University student tests the new law allowing head scarves on campuses. Many people view it
An Istanbul University student tests the new law allowing head scarves on campuses. Many people view it "with some worry," a retired general said. (By Ibrahim Usta -- Associated Press)
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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 28, 2008

ANKARA, Turkey, Feb. 27 -- Turkey's military offensive in northern Iraq has clear objectives: attack Kurdish separatist guerrillas in their mountain bases, destroy their camps and weapons caches, and show them they can be pursued anywhere, anytime.

But many Turkish observers say that the operation, launched last week, also paved the way for something else entirely: head scarves.

Did the Islamic-oriented government, some Turks ask, use the start of the largest offensive into northern Iraq in more than a decade to divert attention from its controversial decision to legalize head scarves in universities?

"There's an obvious connection," said retired Gen. Haldun Solmazturk, an administrator at Ahmet Yesevi University in Ankara, the capital.

In founding modern Turkey in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk encouraged Western attire and restricted religious dress in public as principles of the republic.

Turkey's military, which has long viewed itself as the enforcer of Ataturk's secular vision, was angered by recent legislation aimed at lifting the long-standing head scarf ban at public colleges. But the religiously observant president, Abdullah Gul, signed the amendments into law late last Friday, the first full day of the military's strike into northern Iraq.

At the time, "the attention of the Turkish public was firmly focused on the operation," Solmazturk said. For the observant Muslims who lead Turkey's government, "it was a very clear and very successful strategy."

"Many people take it with some worry, that they are trying to take away from the secular republic while keeping the people busy with something else," said Edip Baser, a retired general in Istanbul, Turkey's commercial center.

Spokesmen for the government and the ruling Justice and Development Party did not return telephone calls and text messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Government leaders, once reluctant to allow the military to go after Kurdish rebels in Iraq, canceled state trips this week to attend funerals of soldiers killed in the operation. Meanwhile, two secular political parties asked the country's constitutional court Wednesday to restore the head scarf ban.

On the front pages and in opinion columns of Turkish newspapers this week, the two battles were linked.

A cartoon in the national daily Milliyet depicted Gul rallying ground troops rushing into northern Iraq. "Onward!" he shouts, thrusting an arm into the air. Another panel of the cartoon showed the president rallying legions of female Islamic activists in head scarves to storm Turkey's universities. "Onward!" he shouts again.

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