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.
For Turkey's military, fresh off the loss of its generals' political battle to stop the return of the head scarf, the offensive has garnered shows of public support.
"Our soldiers are the best soldiers!" young men shouted at rallies across Turkey as they saw off other young men for compulsory military service. Friends gathering at train stations tossed departing soldiers in the air, and fathers wept openly as they bade their sons goodbye.
Meanwhile, at funerals across Turkey -- at least 24 troops have been killed in the offensive -- the young sons and daughters of dead soldiers held the red Turkish flag aloft and stood on tiptoes to wave it high.
"If I had 10 sons, I would send them all to the war," Yasar Armutla, a 46-year-old coal miner from the western Turkish town of Kutahya, said Tuesday, expressing a sentiment heard often here. "In Turkey, the military fights not just for our security but for our honor."
Like many Turks, Armutla sometimes takes his wife and children to the base where he served years ago, to introduce them to old commanders who greet him with kisses.
Turkey's military says that more than 230 Kurdish guerrillas have been killed in the Iraq offensive; the rebels say they have lost only three fighters.
In past strikes in northern Iraq, Turkey has relied largely on warplanes. This operation differs in part in its use of large numbers of ground troops, allowing soldiers to charge into caves where rebels are hiding from Turkish pilots, said Lale Sariibrahimoglu, a military affairs writer and analyst in Ankara.
Former Turkish generals say the push became all but inevitable last October, when Kurdish rebels killed 12 Turkish soldiers and seized eight in Turkey's southeastern Hakkari province. The rebels later released the eight abductees alive.
The following month, President Bush declared the rebels' group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a common enemy of the United States and Turkey. The U.S. military stepped up its sharing of satellite imagery and other intelligence revealing the rebels' positions.
Turkish officials expect the United States to request return favors when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visits here Thursday. Many Turks believe the Bush administration will ask for more troops in Afghanistan, where European members of the NATO alliance have been increasingly reluctant to commit forces.
The intelligence collaboration has also boosted normally dismal Turkish support for the United States.
Still, the U.S. actions have put Washington in the position of backing one of its allies, Turkey, against another, the Kurds. U.S. support has helped Iraqi Kurds establish a semiautonomous homeland in Iraq's north. Turkish leaders have assured Iraqi Kurdish leaders that this month's operation was aimed only at PKK targets, not at destabilizing Kurdish northern Iraq.
"I don't understand why the United States would make an enemy of its only friend in the Middle East," said Nazmi Gur, a Kurdish analyst and a former vice president of the Kurdish political party in Turkey.
On Wednesday, Gates again urged Turkey to end the military operation quickly and to make changes that address the grievances of its Kurdish minority, whose members accuse Turkey of trying to erase their language and culture.
"The question is when the political will and determination will emerge to complement the military operation with nonmilitary policies that will permanently address" the Kurds' grievances, said Sariibrahimoglu, the military analyst.
Gur said the military operation had increased support for the PKK, while hurting it little. Turkey can continue hitting empty camps maintained by the group, but "the PKK never cared about camps," he said. "For the PKK, every mountain is a camp."