New Turkish leader lifts US hopes

Recep Erdogan is expected to ask parliament to allow US troop presence after by-elections.

Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on the outskirts of political power, the Turkish establishment has tried to keep him out.

Today they stand eager to usher him in, hopeful that he can turn around a crisis in relations with Washington and gain parliamentary approval for a deal to base more than 60,000 US troops here for a war in Iraq.

Mr. Erdogan - who will become prime minister sometime in the next week following by-elections Sunday in the province of Siirt - is expected to ask parliament to pass a once-defeated motion to allow Turkish soil to be used in a US-led war against Iraq. In doing so, he faces the challenge of moving rapidly enough to suit the Bush administration's timetable without alienating constituents who thought he would be the last man to aid the West in a war against a Muslim neighbor.

"There will be an image that [outgoing prime minister] Abdullah Gul rejected the war and so the US replaced him, and that will not be good for Tayyip Erdogan," says Rusen Cakir, a biographer of Erdogan's controversial career. "It will be a shadow over him."

Born in a rough-and-tumble Black Sea village and bursting onto the national stage as a feisty soccer player, Erdogan has fought his way out of the shadows before. Turkey's secular state guardians - the military, courts, and bureaucracy - have explicitly tried to keep him from becoming prime minister. His political career began with the Islamist Welfare Party. Then in 1997, he was convicted of inciting religious hatred at a rally after reading a poem that used the mosque as an allegory for militancy, comparing worshippers to soldiers, minarets to bayonets.

The conviction led to jail time and a prohibition on holding office. Erdogan's popularity only increased. He went on to establish the AK [Justice and Development] Party, emerging from the disbanded Welfare Party as the indisputable leader. As Istanbul's mayor in the mid1990s, he gained Rudy Guiliani style appeal, cleaning up a great city in decline. But when his party won enough votes to form a single-party government in last November's elections, his conviction still barred him from holding office.

Members of parliament, under his unofficial leadership, reversed that ban. Whether they will also reverse their March 1 rejection of a proposal to base thousands of US troops here is the question everyone is asking.

"When I voted for the AK Party in November, I voted for Tayyip Erdogan, and I want him to be our leader," says civil servant Mehmet Yurtsever, as he made his way from Friday prayers at the Zincirli mosque in Ulus, a working class neighborhood. "I want the parliament to vote again, to help the US forces, but that doesn't mean we're voting for war."

Erdogan is already under pressure from different camps: those who urge him to finalize a deal with the US to avoid irreparable damage to Turkey's strategic interests and those who think he should heed the public's overwhelming opposition to war. Turkey stands to lose the chance to play an important role in formulating "regime change" in Iraq, as well as up to $15 billion in grants and loans from the US.

But if Erdogan pursues a second vote too soon - and it fails to pass - his image as the poor man's leader who can move masses will suffer a huge blow.

Those who know Erdogan say he has a persuasive gift that has yet to fail him. While Gul boasts fluent English and international experience, Erdogan has a knack for communicating - a crucial talent at time when most Turks say they don't see a solid case for war against Iraq. "You explain something to him, and five minutes later, he can speak about it for a half an hour," says Mevlut Cavusoglu, a member of parliament.

Erdogan approached Mr. Cavusoglu, a businessman with a US graduate degree in economics, to join the AK Party because he wanted bright, conservative people - not religious fanatics. "He is a very realistic person," says Cavusoglu.

It's a description that doesn't quite fit Erdogan's established persona. Supporters of Turkey's strictly secular democracy have viewed him as something of a firebrand seeking a more Islamic state; Turks took a liking to Erdogan because they expect him to challenge the system. Few anticipated his practical side.

While Erdogan opposes the state ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves in official places - he hasn't touched the issue since his party swept elections.

Now, he comes into office at a moment when the United Nations has declared that it is also decision time on Cyprus, an island divided into Greek and Turkish-controlled areas since 1974.

Erdogan backs a UN peace plan that would unite Cyprus as two federal regions linked by a central government. While the Turkish military and the Turkish Cypriot leader have scoffed at the plan, fearing that eventually the island will be turned over to Greece, Erdogan has other goals in mind. An acceptance of the UN plan will let Cyprus into the European Union, and help Turkey's bid to join, too.

"Erdogan is much more of a pragmatic person than Abdullah Gul," says Cengiz Candar, a columnist with the newspaper Tercuman. "The elite think Gul is a soft-spoken man and Erdogan is a wild man. But they are mistaken in that Gul is more doctrinaire and Erdogan is much more concerned with the dictates of realpolitik."

To be sure, few here expected that Erdogan's inner circle would turn out to be more pro-American than Gul's. Then again, observers note, Erdogan has President Bush to thank for inviting him to the White House after November's elections and thereby recognizing him as Turkey's de facto leader, something no one in the Turkish establishment dared do.

"Erdogan had so many problems vis-à-vis the legal system and with the army," notes Mr. Cakir. "Bush gave him enormous legitimacy, and so when you get something, you should give something in return."

Erdogan was angry when parliament rejected a tentative agreement with the US. Over a grueling meeting the following day, Erdogan berated party members, political sources close to him say, for voting according to their whim, and failing to "act responsibly." Yet, before the vote, Erdogan had not demanded full party discipline, meaning that anyone who votes against will be thrown out. "He's very democratic," says Cavusoglu, "sometimes he's too democratic."

But Erdogan, not yet 50, is a political work in progress. Some observers say the fact that he didn't go to Siirt to campaign evokes a new, superconfident Erdogan.

And when he visited just before the November ballot, Cakir says, people commented on an obvious distortion to his usually trim, athletic build - the bulk of a bulletproof vest. "For the first time, he was wearing this.... Before that, Tayyip was always just a man among his people. Something changed."

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