Turkish Army Says it Has Duty to Guard Secularism

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s anti-Islamist military on Wednesday said it had a duty to protect the country’s secular order–amid a row with Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz over who should combat Islamist activism.

"Our troops…are the undaunted guards of the secularist Turkish republic," Anatolian news agency quoted senior general Erol Ozkasnak as saying at a military ceremony.

Yilmaz has accused the generals of trying to make political gain from a campaign against Islamists–sparking a war of words with the brass.

The staunchly secularist army traditionally plays a leading role in Turkish politics. It has staged three coups since 1960.

A dozen government and opposition deputies on Wednesday asked for a parliamentary debate on talk that the army is pressuring Yilmaz’s government.

"Speculations–doubts and rumors about the future of the democratic system are on the increase," the members of Parliament said in a statement sent to the speaker’s office. "There is a need to clear this up and–if possible–put an end to it."

Deputies will decide within 10 days whether to debate the tension. Turkish shares lost around three percent by mid-afternoon on political worries–brokers said.

Yilmaz took office last year after Necmettin Erbakan resigned as modern Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister–forced out under intense pressure from the military.

Erbakan’s Islam-based Welfare Party has since been outlawed by the constitutional court for threatening secularism.

Yilmaz–a secularist conservative–has said he will challenge the army at March 27 meeting of the National Security Council–an army-dominated body key in forcing Erbakan out.

"If anyone is going to be obstinate on March 27 it will be me," a deputy from Yilmaz’s Motherland Party quoted the prime minister as telling his members of parliamen’s at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday.

He defied the armed forces earlier this month by backing down in the face of street protests against a ban on Islamic headscarves in education.

The government on Tuesday defeated an opposition motion to censure the education minister for being over zealous in imposing the headscarf ban.

Security forces in Turkish cities rounded up scores of people affiliated to the country’s leading Kurdish party in overnight raids on their homes–party officials said on Wednesday.

"Police squads took in close to fifty people (in Istanbul)–many of them local party officials," Halil Saglik–general secretary of the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) in Istanbul–told Reuters.

Party officials in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir and in the western town of Manisa confirmed that raids had taken place overnight–but could not say how many people had been detained.

Saglik said the crackdowns were attributable to heightened tension ahead of Newroz–the Kurdish festival on March 21.

"These pressures are obviously directed against people’s desire to celebrate Newroz in line with their own traditions," he said.

Pro-Kurdish commentators have decried what they say is an attempt by the government to appropriate the holiday–often a time of protest by Kurds–as an ancient Turkish ritual.

Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and other senior cabinet members plan to spend the festival this year in major cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

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