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Turkey Strengthening Ties to the West

November 24, 2003

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ If the suicide bombers who attacked Istanbul with such destructive force last week hoped to blow a rift between Muslim Turkey and the United States and Europe, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a clear answer.

``We will not be intimidated and will maintain our fight against terrorism with more determination,″ Erdogan said over the weekend. ``Turkey will not take a step back from its targets of democracy, human rights ... and freedom.″

Most Turks agree. But in a country that sent troops to help keep order in Afghanistan and offered peacekeepers for Iraq _ an offer rejected by Iraqi authorities _ there is fear that the country’s close ties to the West could leave it open to more violence.

``No matter which direction we go, we will be in trouble,″ said lawyer Dirse Yalcin, 34.

Asked Sunday if the attacks would bring a change in Turkey’s friendship with the West, Erdogan told a BBC interviewer: ``never.″

Instead, he said, the attacks by suspected Islamic militants gave added urgency to his government’s drive to cement its integration with the West by becoming the first Muslim member of the European Union.

Turks overwhelmingly back the drive to join the EU, one of the country’s main foreign policy goals. Since the republic was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, one of the state’s main goals has been to reorient Turkey toward the West _ by switching from the Arabic to Latin alphabet, limiting the role of religion in public life and restricting use of Islamic symbols such as the head scarf for women.

Turks interviewed in Istanbul condemned the attacks and viewed the bombers as striking as much against their country as the Jewish community and British interests that were targeted.

``People like us, who have their faces turned toward the West, will become even more vehement supporters of Europe and the U.S.,″ said Dilek Kotan, 45, an economist walking in the affluent Tesvikiye neighborhood.

She said Erdogan’s government should take a tougher line on militant groups. Erdogan is already facing pressure from Turkey’s powerful pro-secular military, which has harbored suspicions that the prime minister’s Islamic-rooted party is soft on fundamentalists.

At least three groups or individuals purporting to be linked to the al-Qaida network claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks, warning Turkey it had to chose ``peace or America.″ Turkey commanded the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan last year and offered peacekeepers for Iraq.

``As for you Turkey, isn’t it time you left the crusader army and returned to the Islamic nation? Isn’t it time you withdrew your army from Afghanistan, stopped all ties with the Zionist entity, stopped providing America with soldiers for Iraq, left the crusader Atlantic alliance?″ the shadowy Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades said in a Web site statement.

Columnist Bulent Kenes said the attacks would reinforce Turkey’s commitment to the NATO alliance and friendship with Israel.

``The result will be the opposite of ... al-Qaida’s expectations,″ Kenes wrote in the English-language Turkish Daily News. ``Turkey, which has already cooperated with the United States and Israel on counterterrorism, will intensify its efforts to struggle against terrorism.″

Still, anger over the attacks mixed with strong opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq and criticism toward Israel.

A peace rally called Saturday as a silent tribute to the victims was joined by several hundred supporters of small but vociferous leftist groups who chanted condemnation of Bush and Israel and blamed them for provoking Islamic violence.

Some give voice to conspiracy theories blaming Washington or Israel’s Mossad secret service for the bombings.

``I personally think the U.S., Mossad and Israel are behind these attacks,″ said Mehmet Gundogdu, 37, serving cookies in an Istanbul pastry shop. ``Whenever Turkey becomes stable, whenever its economy starts improving, (the Americans) plot trouble against us.″

While that may be a minority view, there is pessimism that Turkey’s allegiances could bring more trouble to this nation of 68 million.

``If we get closer to the West, there will be more bombings in Turkey. If we get closer to the East, the economy will be crushed,″ Yalcin said. ``Difficult days are ahead.″

___

Associated Press reporter Esra Aygin in Istanbul contributed to this story.

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