A group of Turkish women's rights activists confronted Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes on Wednesday with emotional and heated complaints about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, turning a session designed to highlight the empowering of women into a raw display of the anger at U.S. policy in the region.
"This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero," said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an activist with the Capital City Women's Forum. She said it was difficult to talk about cooperation between women in the United States and Turkey as long as Iraq was under occupation.
Hughes, a longtime confidante of President Bush tasked with burnishing the U.S. image overseas, has generally met with polite audiences -- many of which consisted of former exchange students or people who have received U.S. funding -- during a tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week.
In this case, the U.S. Embassy asked an umbrella group known as Ka-Der, which supports women running for office, to assemble the guest list. None of the activists currently receives U.S. funds or had any apparent desire to mince words. Six of the eight women who spoke at the session, held in Ankara, Turkey's capital, focused on the Iraq war.
"War makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war -- and women pay the price," said Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish women's rights activist. Vargun denounced the arrest of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq, in front of the White House this week.
Hughes, who became increasingly subdued during the session, defended the decision to invade Iraq as a difficult and wrenching moment for Bush, but necessary to protect the United States.
"You're concerned about war, and no one likes war," Hughes said. But "to preserve the peace, sometimes my country believes war is necessary," she said. She also asserted that women are faring much better in Iraq than they had under the rule of deposed president Saddam Hussein.
"War is not necessary for peace," shot back Feray Salman, a human rights activist. She said countries should not try to impose democracy through war, adding that "we can never, ever export democracy and freedom from one country to another."
Tuksal said she was "feeling myself wounded, feeling myself insulted here" by Hughes's response. "In every photograph that comes from Iraq, there is that look of fear in the eyes of women and children. . . . This needs to be resolved as soon as possible."
Turkey, a member of NATO, has long been a close U.S. ally, but relations have soured during the Bush administration, especially after Turkey's parliament blocked a request to allow U.S. troops to use its territory to invade Iraq from the north. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley visited Ankara last week as part of a new effort by the White House to mend ties.
The Turkish public has also been rattled by an increase in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, an armed separatist group of Turkish Kurds operating out of northern Iraq. The United States has faced accusations that it has not done enough to rein in the group.
Nurdan Bernard, a journalist participating in the panel session, raised concerns about the PKK, prompting Hughes to say it was "somewhat an irony." She added: "Sometimes you have to engage in combat in order to confront terrorists who want to kill you."
Hughes later flew to Istanbul for meetings with religious leaders -- part of an effort to promote interfaith dialogue -- and with Turks who have participated in U.S. exchange programs. She returns to Washington on Thursday.