The Hill Interview: Anti-Americanism growing in Turkey partly because of Iraq war, official says

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s role as a key U.S. ally in the Middle East is being undermined by growing anti-American sentiment because of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s failure to take tough measures against Kurdish terrorists, a top foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told The Hill.

“Anti-American sentiment has risen, not only in Turkey, but throughout Europe and the Middle East in recent years,” said Egeman Bagis, a member of the Turkish Parliament and chairman of that body’s counterpart to the Congressional Turkish Caucus co-chaired by Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.).

“Ever since the war in Iraq started, the U.S. commitment against the PKK, and as far as we’re concerned, against international terrorism, is not felt as strongly as before,” said Bagis, referring to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which operates out of safe havens in northern Iraq and has caused more than 40,000 Turkish deaths in the last three decades.

“As the official friend of the U.S. in the Turkish Parliament, I can tell you it’s not easy being a friend of the U.S. in Turkish politics these day,” he declared.

Bagis cited the example of people attending the funeral of one of 10 people killed two weeks ago in suspected PKK bombings in southeastern Turkey.

“They were shouting ‘down with the PKK, down with the USA.’ So people on the street have started establishing a link between the U.S. and the PKK. I know that’s not true but it’s not important what I think. It’s important what the masses think.”

Bagis, whose Istanbul district includes some 4.5 million people, spoke to The Hill last week as the U.S. special envoy for countering the PKK, retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, met here with Turkish officials. Ralston assured them the U.S. is prepared to take concrete measures in fighting the terrorist group.

Calling Ralston “a man of integrity who believes in international peace,” Bagis said he hopes Ralston “will be able to deliver concrete results in combating the PKK, because if he can’t, his good image is not going to be enough to save Turkish-American relations.”

He added, “When my colleagues in the U.S. Congress and some diplomats ask me why is there such anti-American sentiment in Turkey, I always ask them what has the U.S. done to prevent that?”

Bagis indicated that one of Prime Minister Erdogan’s major goals when he meets with President Bush in Washington on Oct. 2 would be to assure greater U.S. support for combating the PKK.

Turkey also wants U.S. help in resolving the longstanding dispute with Greece over Cyprus and to increase bilateral trade with the U.S., which was about $11 billion in 2005, but could easily exceed $50 billion, he said.

Despite Turkey’s concerns about the war in Iraq, Bagis said it would be a mistake for the U.S. to pull out now. “The worst thing the U.S. can do now is to leave Iraq as a failure because it will just add to the number of terrorist wannabes.”

But the U.S. should set a timetable so Iraq can prepare to manage its own affairs, he added.

Bagis disputed the notion, put forth by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and others, that Iraq should be divided into three semi-autonomous regions dominated by Kurds in northern Iraq, Sunnis in central Iraq and Shiites in southern Iraq, with a central government in Baghdad.

“We think any division in Iraq, based on ethnic groups, religion or geography, would be the beginning of much further division. The only way of success and the only way of prosperity is through protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq and ensuring that Iraq’s national resources belong to all the people of Iraq.”

Although Turkey is not a major energy producer, Bagis said the government is determined to turn Turkey into an “energy hub” by building pipelines to bring oil and natural gas into the country from Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Greece and Egypt for processing and redistribution to Western Europe and other regions.

“It’s our way of providing alternative sources and routes” [for energy supplies], he said. “It will make Turkey an important player on energy issues.”

Bagis, who spent 17 years in New York with groups promoting Turkish-American relations before returning home to run for Parliament as a member of Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling party, declined to comment on the effect of Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial comments about Islam on this secular Islamic country.

But he indicated that the Pope, who is scheduled to visit Turkey in November, may not get “a very friendly reception from the person on the street unless he issues a public apology.” Nor would he speculate on whether Turkish officials might ask the Pope to postpone or cancel his visit.

Bagis said he arranged a number of meetings with key Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Erdogan, or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was in Istanbul last week for a U.S.-Turkish business conference sponsored by the Rand Corporation. He said he was impressed by Kissinger’s analysis of Turkey’s strategic role in the Middle East.

“He said Turkey is unique. As a neighbor and trading partner it has good influence with Iran, yet it is one of the most important and dependable allies of the U.S. He said that makes Turkey a bridge between East and West, and that the U.S. should better utilize that bridge. That’s the first thing I tell my friends in the U.S. Congress. Turkey is the most dependable ally in this region.”

Bagis spoke with The Hill over lunch at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, which he helped establish. He said it is only the second such museum in the Middle East, the first one being in Tehran.

The interview was arranged by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), whose lobbying firm represents the government of Turkey.