- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ISTANBUL — Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s top public diplomacy official, scuffled verbally with Turkish women over the Iraq war yesterday as she waged an effort to persuade one of the most important Muslim countries of Washington’s good intentions.

During a discussion with members of women’s nongovernmental organizations in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, Mrs. Hughes was challenged with accusations that the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein has erased women’s rights and made their lives miserable.

“In every photograph I see from Iraq, there is fear and concern in the eyes of women and children,” said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal of the Capital City Women’s Platform.

Visibly upset, Mrs. Hughes, a close friend and former adviser of President Bush’s, fired back.

“I have to respectfully disagree,” she said. “It is impossible to say that the plight of women was better under Saddam Hussein. Women were tortured; they had their children tortured in front of them.”

The Ankara meeting came a day after a similar exchange Mrs. Hughes had with Saudi women over their rights in the kingdom’s patriarchal society. “I feel the pain that you are feeling,” she said. “No one likes war.”

She recalled her conversations with her “friend, the president,” before the Iraq invasion. “This is the most difficult decision” he had to make.

The Turkish women pressed on.

“War is the most organized form of violence,” said Feray Salman, a human rights advocate.

Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish women’s rights activist, said: “I’m ashamed that the 21st century is the century of war.”

Mrs. Hughes, who is on her first trip as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, visited Egypt and then Saudi Arabia. Turkey is the last country on her mission to improve the image of the United States, which many in the Middle East say has been tarnished by the Bush administration’s policies.

“I am not anti-American, but I am anti-war and anti-violence,” said Serpil Sancar of the Women’s Studies Center at Ankara University. “We would be pleased to cooperate not on violence, but for increased freedom and well-being.”

Mrs. Hughes also heard from religious leaders from six faiths in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and most modern city.

They had a message similar to the one from the women, saying politicians should “emphasize peace.”

Before the Iraq war, Turkey refused to allow the United States to use its territory or airspace. Some of the women said they vigorously lobbied parliament to take that stand.

Ankara fears that a division of Iraq along ethnic lines could encourage the Kurds in Turkey to declare independence. Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting the Turkish army since 1984 in a conflict that has claimed about 37,000 lives.

Mrs. Hughes said, “PKK terrorism is absolutely the same as al Qaeda terrorism,” and the administration condemns it.

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