- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Turkey's reluctant support for a U.S.-led strike against neighboring Iraq will not change despite the overwhelming electoral victory Sunday of a party with deep Islamist roots, the party's leading figure said yesterday.

"We are bound by the U.N.'s decision. We cannot say anything before seeing the U.N.'s attitude toward the issue," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AK, told reporters yesterday.

Echoing the line taken by ousted Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Mr. Erdogan added, "We don't want blood, tears and death. We hope the issue will be solved peacefully."

The AK's stunning triumph in Sunday's election has diplomats and analysts scrambling to assess how policies might change in Turkey, a staunch U.S. ally and the only Muslim-majority country in NATO.

The U.S. Incirlik air base in southern Turkey is considered a critical staging area for any action against Iraq.

The year-old party, emerging from the ashes of past Islamist parties in the rigorously secular country, took 34.2 percent of the vote and, given the failure of many traditional parties to secure the minimum votes needed for representation in parliament, will be able to govern alone with 363 seats in the 550-seat legislature.

U.S. and European Union officials offered a cautious welcome to the new government.

"We look forward to working closely and constructively with the new government," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, while EU foreign policy spokesman Javier Solana said the new government "would be judged by its actions."

Mark R. Parris, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000, said he expects an AK government to continue the country's basic acquiescence to U.S. action in Iraq, in part because staying on the sidelines is not an option.

"Turkey's interests in Iraq are so overwhelming that they simply can't sit this out" if the United States and its allies move, Mr. Parris said yesterday. "They have to cooperate regardless of who the prime minister is."

The military regards itself as the guardian of Turkey's 80-year tradition of secularism and has led three coups. The military has not commented since the elections.

"The military will be very vigilant," said Seyfi Tashan, the director of the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. The Justice party "will not have much leeway."

But huge question marks hang over Ankara as the AK begins the task of organizing a new government.

Mr. Erdogan, clearly the country's most charismatic politician, is barred for life from the prime minister's job after a 1998 conviction for a public reading of a pro-Islam poem that was ruled an effort to incite religious hatred. He is widely expected to play a major, still-undefined role behind the scenes.

The very scale of the party's triumph has changed the calculus on what the new government might do. Although many Turks voted for the AK to protest the mainstream center-left and center-right parties, the new government's leading figures are far more pronounced in their pro-Islamic views than the electorate.

Bulent Ali Riza, director of the Turkey program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted that Mr. Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, would play the dominant role in the new government, despite his inability to claim an official post.

"I think the idea that the AK is somehow going to be tamed is the wrong way to look at this," he said.

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