- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey has put its army on alert to stave off any attacks by Kurdish rebels during a spring festival beset by unprecedented political problems this week.

The crisis includes a widening rift between the military commanders and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warnings of more attacks by Kurdish extremists and a rising nationalist fervor that is worrying Turkey’s European partners.

Complicating the task of the Erdogan government is the possibility of strained relations with the United States over the prospect of a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq and the threat that the U.S. Congress might brand the World War I killings of Armenians by Turkey’s Ottoman rulers as genocide.

Turkish press reports have said the volume of problems is unprecedented in Turkey’s modern history.

Military leaders have warned that regardless of Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union, the army will remain the ultimate guardian of the republic.

At the same time, Gen. Ilker Basbug, the commander of land forces, reaffirmed Turkey’s right to send its troops to Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels waging a 32-year war for independence.

Against such a background, most of Turkey’s 10 million Kurds prepared to celebrate Norooz, a spring festival that is also observed in Iran and Afghanistan.

The guerrilla Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the main fighting force of the Kurdish opposition, has threatened terrorist attacks over the holiday, particularly against the country’s thriving tourist resorts.

A number of Kurdish politicians, including members of the legally recognized Democratic Society Party, have been rounded up for interrogation. In the predominantly Kurdish area of Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey, the authorities refused to grant permission for festivals.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the Turkish political scene was marred by growing tension between the senior military cadres and Mr. Erdogan, increasingly accused by the army of Islamic tendencies.

In 1999, the army was instrumental in removing from power Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was known for his political commitment to militant Islam.

Although Mr. Erdogan has never indicated any intention of abandoning Turkey’s secular system, the military and secularist circles resent his appointments of Islamic politicians to government posts as well as the fact that his wife wears a head scarf in public buildings, which is banned by law.

Mr. Erdogan has been highly critical of a planned resolution in Congress to recognize the 1915 Armenian massacres as genocide. “I am worried that such a resolution would cast a shadow over our strategic partnership,” he said.

The Bush administration also fears damage to its relations with Turkey, a critical NATO partner in one of the most unstable areas of the world. Successive Turkish governments have refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the death of 1.5 million Armenians who were accused of supporting Russia in its war with Turkey.

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