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EXCLUSIVE: Turkish prime minister slams U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that "the situation in Iraq is not positive at all," contrary to U.S. claims of progress after five years of conflict.

Mr. Erdogan, in Washington to attend the financial summit of G-20 nations, said Afghanistan was "another disastrous event" and that the Bush administration had spent more than $500 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan without stabilizing either country.

Bipartisan in his criticism, the Turkish leader also chided President-Elect Barack Obama for openly promising to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months. It would have been better for Mr. Obama to have kept his timetable "secret," Mr. Erdogan said.

Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its parliament failed to approve the transit of U.S. forces from bases in Turkey into Iraq at that time. Since then, however, Turkey has become a major supplier for U.S. forces. It fears a U.S. withdrawal could lead to even more instability in Iraq and a possible partition of the country that would aggravate Turkey's problems with a large Kurdish minority.

Mr. Erdogan, speaking at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said he had visited both Iraq and Afghanistan and "I couldn't help but wonder where does all that money [provided by the United States] go?" He said Turkey, instead of giving money, was building schools and hospitals and providing training to police and local governments.

"We are investing, not just paying," he said. "Instead of giving money, we prefer to give something tangible."

Mr. Erdogan said a too-quick withdrawal from Iraq was a bad idea because Iraqi "law enforcement has not yet matured" and local administration is also not ready to assume responsibility. Transitioning from a "totalitarian mentality is not an easy task," he said.

State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said Mr. Erdogan's assessment of Iraq was overly pessimistic.

"Iraq's infrastructure, as well as the security situation in the country, is improving every day," Mr. Wood said. "While a lot of work remains to be done, the Iraqi government is making great progress in delivering services to its people. Iraqi security forces now control 13 of the countrys 18 provinces, demonstrating Iraq's growing ability to provide for its own security."

Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and director of a Turkey project at Brookings, said Turkish leaders "after not wanting us to go in [to Iraq], don't want us to go out too quickly."

He added that the Ankara government is displaying a new "self-confidence" after a string of political victories at home and mediation efforts in the region between Israel and Syria, with Iran and in the Caucasus. Turkey also recently won election to a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"They believe they're better at it [mediation] than the clunky Westerners who press all the wrong buttons," Mr. Parris said.

Henry Barkey, a Turkey expert and head of the department of international relations at Lehigh University, agreed that the Turkish government was showing "a new assertiveness. We are a serious power and we know some things better than you do," was how Mr. Barkey summed up the Turkish attitude.

Mr. Erdogan leads the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an organization with strong Islamic roots that won 46.6 percent of the votes in elections in July 2007. An attempt by secular parties to outlaw the AKP failed earlier this year when the country's Constitutional Court voted six to five to disband the party and bar its leaders from politics for five years. Under court procedures, seven votes would have been needed.

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey under the AKP was trying to act as a bridge between the world's 1.5 billion Muslims and people of other faiths. He pointed to Turkish efforts to join the European Union and improved relations with Turkey's neighbors.

For example, he said, Turkey is trying to mend its historic rivalry with Armenia and to convince Iran to foreswear nuclear weapons.

He also said his nation of 70 million the 17th largest economy in the world is weathering the current economic crisis better than others.

Unlike the situation in the United States, he said, not a single Turkish bank has failed in recent months. He attributed this to Turkey learning lessons from severe economic crises earlier in this decade and in the 1990s.

Asked about advice from the International Monetary Fund to lower Turkey's projection for growth next year from 6 percent to 2 percent, Mr. Erdogan said that 4 percent was a more realistic number despite a recession elsewhere in the world.

"We are a developing country," he said. "This country cannot afford to stop its investments. We have to think about our youth."