ANKARA -- Last August, President Turgut Ozal of Turkey stuck his neck out to back the United States, quickly assenting to President Bush's telephoned request to shut down Iraq's oil pipeline that runs through Turkey. Ozal's affirmative response -- a key to the early success of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein -- cost Turkey billions of dollars.

It was a risky course for a strong-minded politician whose popularity at home was at an all-time low. Yet Ozal says he made the decision in three hours. (According to a high-ranking U.S. official, Ozal coolly waited a day to respond -- until he was convinced the Americans were serious.)

And despite the fact that Ozal and other Turkish officials were angered by what they felt was Bush administration indifference to Turkish interests, Ozal took other major steps to back the Americans in the faceoff with Saddam after Iraq's seizure of Kuwait last Aug. 2.

Ozal overrode senior Turkish bureaucrats and military officers in abandoning the policy set by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, never to intervene in inter-Arab or inter-Islamic quarrels. To the surprise of senior U.S. officials, Ozal not only allowed the United States to bomb Iraq from the Turkish air base at Incirlik during the Gulf War but also massed Turkish forces at the Iraqi border to tie down some of Saddam's troops.

Now, despite the fact that the war exacerbated Turkey's economic problems and left 400,000 Iraqi Kurd refugees seeking shelter on his borders, Ozal has made clear Turkey's help would have gone even further if he had had his way.

In a recent interview, Ozal said he actually wanted to send troops to fight beside the coalition but gave in to overwhelming opposition from his country's military and political bureaucracy -- not to mention opposition from Turkish leaders who rushed to Baghdad to meet with Saddam and denounce any use of force against Iraq.

The war made clear to outsiders what Turks have long known: Virtually all policymaking power rests in Ozal's hands. Ozal himself is known to have confided to Turkish journalists in an off-the-record briefing that his daring pro-U.S. policy would bring Ankara valuable dividends.

At the end of the war, when Ozal spent a weekend at Camp David with Bush, it appeared as though his judgment was on the mark. But things suddenly began to change. Ozal and many Turks now believe Ankara is being punished rather than rewarded.

Money is barely trickling in from Washington and the wealthy gulf sheikdoms to recompense Turkey for its immense war-related losses (tourism collapsed and $2 billion annually was lost in transport fees from Iraq). But the world's attention has shifted to the 400,000 Kurds who tried and failed to oust Saddam and now are camped on Turkey's southern border.

Ironically, Turkey, which took in thousands of Kurdish refugees in 1988 when they fled Saddam's poison gas attacks (and took in as well thousands of Bulgarian and Iranian political refugees) is under attack in many Western capitals for closing its borders and forcing the world to come to the aid of the Kurds. Finally, Ozal and other Turks note bitterly that Saddam Hussein remains in power.

In shirtsleeves at a round table in his office, Ozal dismissed the notion that he prefers a weak Saddam. "Saddam must go," he declared. Iraq, he argued, should remain intact and be transformed into a democratic state. "Nobody can take care of Saddam except the United States," he added.

Yet Turkey's future stability may hinge on Saddam's fate. Ozal predicted that the Iraqi Kurds will not return to their homes so long as Saddam remains in power. If they stay, inherent tensions between the Turks and the Kurds are likely to rise, with unforeseeable consequences for Turkey and the entire region. Meanwhile, Western criticism of Turkey's attitude toward the Kurdish refugees has revived decades' old apprehensions that the Western powers might create a separate Kurdish state on Turkey's border.

The "safety zones" U.S. forces have created for the refugees in northern Iraq are seen here as the first step in that long-feared Western plot. Ozal flatly declared that Turkey can neither allow the formation of a separate Kurdestan nor absorb the Kurdish refugees. The second point hinges on delicate issues of Turkish security: Some 12 million Kurds live in Turkey, about 20 percent of the country's entire population. Any increase in that population would raise major political issues. Ozal declared that the refugees must return to Iraq: "There is no alternative." (Many of these Kurds, according to a high ranking U.S. official, were working for Saddam before they joined the uprising and then tried to flee to Turkey.)

Ozal said he encouraged Bush to create the safety zones, but he emphasized to me that the zones must be truly temporary and not become "a long temporary solution like the Palestinian camps."

Ozal drew a parallel between the Kurdish problem and the Palestinian dilemma. He said he and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who recently visited Turkey, agreed that the "Palestinianization" of the Kurdish issue would be unacceptable -- no permanent refugee camps, in other words.

Like Turkey, Ozal said, Iran, Syria and Iraq also oppose an independent Kurdish state. He added that Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani accepted this fact in meetings with Turkish officials.

Ozal broke a domestic taboo when he ordered secret official talks with the Iraqi Kurds. Said Ozal of the two meetings between a senior Turkish official and Talabani: "We have to know what's going on." One Ozal adviser said Ozal privately believes Turkey can develop a protective relationship with, and even sponsor, an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Ozal insisted that Turkey has done a reasonably good job of assimilating its Kurds into mainstream Turkish life: "We have no separation." There are Kurdish ministers in the government, he said, and even acknowledged that he has distant Kurdish ancestry.

But the picture is not completely rosy: It became legal only a few weeks ago to speak Kurdish in Turkey. And a Western diplomat here told me that "until the last few weeks you wouldn't get a Turkish official to talk about Kurds."

Turkish attitudes toward its Kurdish minority are shaped as well from the hard fact that Ankara has had to combat a Kurdish terror organization, the PKK. Officials said here that in recent weeks, Iraq apparently has begun supplementing longtime PKK sponsor Syria.

Ozal's Kurdish policy has sparked a heated debate behind the scenes. Senior army officers have reportedly warned Ozal his support for Kurdish enclaves in Iraq could eventually lead to a sovereign Kurdish state. Such a result, many Turkish analysts agree, would likely spell Ozal's political doom. Despite his problems, Ozal in his interview offered an optimistic vision of his country's future. Indeed, any reappearance of the political turmoil that led to the military takeover 11 years ago seems remote. Ozal assured me: "There will be no army intervention, because of the economic well-being and social and urban change. It is a Western country except where you see minarets."

Abroad, Ozal is widely admired -- particularly in the West. His relations with Bush remain close: He has easy access to the Oval Office, and has spoken by telephone with Bush some 50 times since Aug. 2.

Democratically elected in 1983, Ozal declared -- correctly -- that he has transformed Turkey economically, turning it into an export-driven economy. "I think no country in the world has {had} this rapid change," he said, an assertion with which even his harshest critics agree.

Turkey's economic growth rate in the past 10 years has been at least 5 to 6 percent annually. "You can find anything here in Turkey," he said proudly, noting that Eastern Europeans come to Istanbul to shop: "This is a modern society now."

But economic problems remain, and while Ozal's popularity rose at the end of the war, his political future is unclear. His party's standing in the polls is a modest -- perhaps vulnerable -- 12 and 30 percent. Critics say he has usurped many powers that constitutionally belong to the parliament and the prime minister. Erdal Inonu, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, said in an interview that Ozal behaves as if Turkey had a presidential, not a parliamentary system of government. Bulent Ecevit, leader of the opposition Democratic Left Party, echoed Inonu. "The political powers are grabbed by the president, who doesn't have to account to anyone for anything. The parliament has lost most of its functions."

Nepotism is also an issue. Ozal critics point out that his brother and nephew were at one time in his government and that his wife, Semra, exerts enormous influence behind the scenes. With her husband's help, she has been elected head of the Motherland Party branch in Istanbul -- the party he founded in 1983. Critics pointed out that the presidency is meant to be above politics -- not a post from which to manage a political campaign for your wife.

Still other Turks dislike Ozal because they believe he has allowed religion to creep too far into secular life -- in particular into some Turkish ministries and schools.

Ozal said his long-term aim is to make Turkey "freer," to do away with "old taboos." He expressed pleasure at the recent abolition of three harsh articles of the penal code, a must for Turkey's admission to the European Economic Community, which Ozal very much desires.

He declared he had brought the Turkish military under greater civilian control. Ozal in 1987 became the first civilian leader, instead of the military itself, to choose the armed forces chief of staff.

But isolation of the military from political life was breached during the Gulf War, when chief of staff Gen. Necip Torumtay quit, largely because of Ozal's staunch support of the United States. Ozal told me the fact that Torumtay resigned instead of attempting a coup is further proof that democracy has taken strong hold here. More recently, tensions have arisen between Ozal and the military because of the services' adamant opposition to an independent Kurdish state and to any safe havens for Kurds.

Moderating these tensions is the military's awareness that Ozal -- with his good Washington relationship -- is the key to getting the American weapons needed to modernize their antiquated armed forces. Ozal said that with the Cold War ended, he is seeking to reorient Turkish-Soviet relations. He said he looks on the Soviets as a trading partner, although adding that a recent Moscow meeting with President Mikhail Gorbachev made clear to him the Soviets are in deep economic trouble. Even so, Ozal said he is trying to create and promote a regional economic development organization, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Zone. Ozal and others here believe Turkey can be a bridge between the West and Central Asia, and can offset inroads fundamentalist Islam is making in the Moslem Soviet republics.

General elections are approaching -- in autumn 1992 at the latest. For all their grumbling about his wife's power, his lifestyle or his arbitrary ways, most Turks concede that Ozal has changed the face of Turkey, that he has performed an economic miracle and that he has "vision."

This is an opportune moment for the United States, which relied so heavily upon Turkish support during the war, to reassert its commitment to Turkey -- and to Ozal -- by sending Turkey additional funds, by making sure the coalition partners honor their large commitments and by relieving the pressure on Turkey's southeast border.

In Ozal, America has a leader who voted openly to join the Western camp, who regards fundamentalism and radical Middle Eastern politics as threats and who is ready to take effective measures to contain those potentially destabilizing movements. That is the U.S. interest as well.

Lally Weymouth writes frequently on politics and foreign affairs for The Washington Post.