A Turkish columnist writes, and the powerful listen

Fehmi Koru is a cross between a Turkish Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh - and many say his strong antiwar columns are influencing Ankara.

When Turkish members of parliament were asked to vote on whether to allow US troops here as part of a northern front in a war against Iraq - as they may be asked again next week - they could hear the chants of 50,000 protesters marching through the capital.

But the voice politicians are listening to most, many here say, is that of Fehmi Koru, the man Turkey has been reading and hearing a lot more of since November's election of the AK [Justice and Development] Party.

Mr. Koru is a columnist and Ankara bureau chief for Yeni Safak, a conservative, Islamic-bent paper in sync with the ruling AK Party. He is also the sharp-witted moderator of a television show, "Capital Corridors," making him something of a cross between a Turkish Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh.

But his opposition to a war in Iraq and his criticism of press laws that have allowed him to face charges for "inciting hatred" also make him a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, Koru says, on a day when he happens to be wearing a gray tweed jacket.

"This war is an unjust war," Koru told the Monitor after the motion to base 60,000 US troops here was defeated last weekend. "One had to give that opinion to the face of the aggressor. This was an expression of democratic values."

Koru, a round-faced, trim-mustachioed man who is as quick with a turn of phrase in English as in Turkish, says the government should not call another vote to let the US use Turkey as a launchpad for war.

No one here disputes that the pages of Yeni Safak, meaning "New Dawn," have been a great influence on members of parliament in the AK Party, many of them serving in politics for the first time. Secular bureaucrats, military officials, and journalists from larger, more established newspapers read it to get a window into AK Party thinking.

In this diplomats' town, embassy staff say they regularly check Koru's columns - a serious one in his name, and a gossipy one under a pen-name - for the latest scuttlebutt. Along with a growing number of readers around Turkey, they have been reading his case against war in Iraq. The paper's readership, about 10,000 when Koru joined the paper four years ago, is now up to 90,000. Koru attributes the circulation jump to a successful new promotion - a free book on the prophet Muhammad with any subscription.

As for last weekend's failed proposal, Koru says he gets too much credit. "Maybe my opinions on the Iraq issue coincided with the opinions of the members of parliament. Maybe they saw me as the one who represented their views," he says. "But regardless of my existence, they would have voted this way."

Political observers say the ear that is most closely attuned to Koru - and vice versa - is that of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul. Koru acknowledges they are close friends. The two men met 35 years ago as college students in Istanbul and members of the same Islamic-oriented student association - then later studied in London together.

Even while Mr. Gul is expected to vacate the premier's office soon to make way for Sunday's anticipated election of AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, putting Gul in the foreign minister's seat, Koru's columns could remain the best barometer of the AK Party government.

"The AKP does not have a good interlocutor with the media. so in order to get an inside view, we rely on him," says Mehmet Ali Birand, one of Turkey's most senior journalists. "Don't forget that the AK Party is a young bunch. Quite a number of them listened to him, almost worshipped him, because for them, he was a knowledgeable guy."

In addition to applauding Gul for trying to avert war - suggesting in one column that anyone who could stop the Bush administration's march toward war might win Turkey a Nobel Peace Prize - Koru is also calling Washington's bluff.

In his columns, he suggests the US does not have a "Plan B" for war against Iraq without Turkey. He bases the information, he says, on documents on the websites of the US Departments of Defense and State.

"Powell said if you cannot decide, we will take our ships and go. That was Feb. 18, and what day are we today?" Koru asks over a Diet Coke in the lobby lounge of one of Ankara's best hotels. "Turkey is very important for giving an impression that this is not a clash of civilizations thing."

But Koru by no means reserves his criticism for President Bush. To Wednesday's rare statement by the Turkish military expressing support for allowing US troops here, Koru quips, "It's a little late for that, isn't it?" Turkey's military has been criticized for not giving public backing to the arrangements negotiated between US and Turkish officials.

Nor would it be accurate to paint Koru as anti-American. In the early 1980s, he studied in Boston, earning a master's degree from Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and serving as a research affiliate at M.I.T. His son now studies at Rutgers University.

"I love the US. Every year I go to the States at least three or four times," he says. "But I cannot see the same kind of US I knew since Mr. Bush took over, and since Sept. 11. What we hear from relatives in the US is really not good news."

Koru ran into trouble with the law when he was charged in 1999 with violating Article 312, which prohibits the incitement of religious hatred.

The charge, later dropped, was based on his expression of sympathy with some demonstrators who suggested that the devastating earthquake of 1999 might have been the will of God. The same article prevented Mr. Erdogan from serving in office - until now. The AK Party, with a majority in parliament, later overturned the laws that prevented Erdogan from serving in high office.

Next week, Erdogan is expected to push hard on that majority, compelling them to accommodate US requests for assistance in creating a northern front against Saddam Hussein. Koru says he is not so sure that such a motion, if brought, will pass. Friends say that's a stance Koru can afford to take.

"Fehmi Koru is good friend of mine, but he is not a politician. He is a journalist, and he has the luxury not to make such a decision," say Huseyin Bagci, a professor international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"He was trying to apply a philosophical and ethical approach to the decision," adds Mr. Bagci. "But strategically speaking, Turkey cannot remain outside the war. So the Turkish people have decided morally, rightly. But strategically, wrongly."

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