- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Turkish army is digging in its heels against changes in a proposed constitution and demanding that the government renegotiate a new security agreement with Iraq to allow it across the border in pursuit of Kurdish rebels.

The issues threaten to rekindle political tensions at a time of intensified attacks by rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and growing skepticism about reforms required if Turkey is to join the European Union.

In the latest terrorist attack, PKK rebels fatally shot 12 passengers on a bus near the Iraqi border late Saturday. Turkey says the rebels have major operational bases in Iraqi territory, but Baghdad turned down its request for a right of “hot pursuit” in a treaty signed Friday.

The wide-ranging security agreement aims to restrict financial, logistical and propaganda support for the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The Turkish army has been pressing for a major strike at an estimated 4,000 Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, an idea rejected by Iraq and strongly opposed by Washington, which fears such an offensive could further destabilize Iraq.

Senior army generals told Turkish newspapers that the security agreement was unsatisfactory and should be amended or renegotiated.

A report by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said thousands of Iraqis seeking shelter in relatively calm northern Iraq have been forced to flee by intense Turkish artillery fire across the border. The Turkish army issued no comment on the report.

The increasingly vocal military was more specific on a new constitution put forward by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The draft constitution, to replace one imposed by the army after a 1980 coup, would scrap a clause barring women from wearing Islamic head scarves at universities and in official buildings.

The so-called “battle of the head scarf” pits secular forces against the AKP, which has Islamic roots despite its ambitions for EU membership. Abdullah Gul, the recently elected president, is regarded as a “former Islamist” whose wife wears a scarf in public — an act that secularists see as a political provocation.

Gen. Ilker Basbug, commander of the Turkish land forces, said that weekend that secularism was part of the heritage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.

“The principle … is enshrined in the constitution and should not be a topic for discussion,” he said at the Ankara Military Academy. “The armed forces are and will always be a party to the protection of this principle.”

The Turkish army considers itself the republic’s ultimate guardian and, in this spirit, has removed four governments from power during the past 50 years. The European Union”s efforts to diminish its role in politics have been only partially successful.

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