- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey Governing-party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a seat in parliament by a huge margin yesterday, opening the way for him to become prime minister and unite the government behind the deployment of U.S. troops for an Iraq war.
The charismatic Mr. Erdogan already the nation's de facto leader has advocated the U.S. troop deployment in Turkey, and analysts say one of his first moves as prime minister could be to purge ministers who oppose it.
Prime Minister Abdullah Gul is expected to resign Wednesday to make way for Mr. Erdogan to take over the government, after Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party overwhelmingly won by-election balloting in the southeastern town of Siirt. Gov. Nuri Okutan of Siirt said Justice got 84.7 percent of the vote.
It was not clear when parliament would be ready to take up a new resolution on U.S. troop deployment, after lawmakers failed to approve a resolution March 1. Ships carrying thousands of U.S. soldiers and their equipment forces meant to establish a northern front against Iraq have been sitting off the Turkish coast.
Turkish journalists say a vote could come as early as Thursday, but members of the Justice Party said it might be two weeks before a new government is in place.
"Our task is hard. Our path is long, but my peoples' trust is total," Mr. Erdogan told supporters after the vote.
Some U.S. equipment already has been unloaded and moved to a temporary staging area in southeastern Turkey, about 100 miles from the Iraqi border.
The compound, which will serve as a logistics base for 62,000 U.S. troops if the Turkish parliament approves, was set up last week outside the town of Kiziltepe.
Dozens of jeeps, ambulances, trucks and fuel-haulers were lined up inside the walled compound yesterday, surrounded by barbed wire.
About 30 trucks carrying more jeeps and military equipment left the eastern Turkish port of Iskenderun for a 15-hour convoy to the base early yesterday. The operation is run by 3,500 U.S. troops.
As part of a deal allowing American troops to use Turkey as a base to mount an attack on Iraq, Ankara has demanded the right to flood northern Iraq with troops to prevent any Kurdish independence drive and block waves of refugees from crossing the border.
But some Kurdish groups in northern Iraq are threatening to resist a Turkish incursion with force.
Though the Turkish public is overwhelmingly against a war, Mr. Erdogan urged legislators after the failed vote to act "not to satisfy their daily emotions but toward the country's future."
Rebuffing the United States risks straining ties with Washington and losing influence in the future of neighboring Iraq as well as a $15 billion U.S. aid package offered in exchange for hosting U.S. troops.
The Hurriyet newspaper reported Saturday that Mr. Erdogan plans to fire four ministers who opposed the deployment, reducing the number of ministers from 24 to 20.
Mr. Erdogan's election may end some of the confusion within the Turkish government. Even with Mr. Gul as prime minister, Mr. Erdogan leads the ruling party and is widely regarded as the nation's leader. It was Mr. Erdogan whom President Bush invited to the White House after Turkey's national elections in November.
Some analysts say those muddled lines of authority contributed to the failure of the deployment resolution by a mere four votes in the 550-seat parliament despite Justice's huge majority of 362 seats.
Mr. Erdogan had been barred from running in November national elections because of a conviction for inciting religious hatred over a poem he read at a 1998 rally in Siirt, 60 miles north of the Iraqi border.
Justice lawmakers changed the constitution after the national vote to make Mr. Erdogan eligible for office.
During Mr. Gul's premiership, Mr. Erdogan strongly influenced policy, and Cabinet ministers including Mr. Gul often consulted Mr. Erdogan.
Although Mr. Erdogan urged legislators to vote for the first resolution, his words are likely to have a stronger impact once he is in office.
"It is one thing to run a government by remote control and another to sit in the prime minister's seat," said Ilnur Cevik, editor in chief of the Turkish Daily News.
"Gul knew he was a transition prime minister, and exerting your will on the party is very hard if you are a lame-duck prime minister," Mr. Cevik said.

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