Turkish Women, Too, Have Words With U.S. Envoy (on Iraq War)

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
Published: September 29, 2005

ISTANBUL, Sept. 28 – Under Secretary of State Karen P. Hughes, seeking common ground with leading women’s rights advocates in Turkey, was confronted instead on Wednesday with anguished denunciations of the war in Iraq and what the women said were American efforts to export democracy by force.

It was the second day in a row that Ms. Hughes found herself at odds with groups of women on her “public diplomacy” tour, aimed at improving the American image in the Middle East. On Tuesday, she told Saudi Arabian women she would support efforts to raise their status but was taken aback when some of them responded that Americans misunderstand their embrace of traditions.

She met Wednesday with about 20 Turkish feminist leaders in Ankara, the capital. She introduced herself, as she has done on this trip, as “a working mom” and said she was there to emphasize the many things Turkey and the United States had in common. The women welcomed her but had a different emphasis.

“You are very angry with Turkey, I know,” said Hidayet Tuskal, a director of the Capital City Women’s Platform, referring to what she characterized as United States reaction to opposition in Turkey to the Iraq war, which she said was a feminist issue because women and children were dying daily. “I’m feeling myself wounded,” Ms. Tuskal added. “I’m feeling myself insulted here.”

Fatma Nevin Vargun, identifying herself as a Kurdish rights advocate, said she was “ashamed” of the war and added that the United States bore responsibility. Referring to the arrest of a war protester at the White House on Monday, she added, “This was a pity for us as well.”

With her brow furrowed, Ms. Hughes replied: “I can appreciate your concern about war. No one likes war.” She went on to say that “my friend President Bush” did all he could to avoid a war in Iraq, but then asserted about Iraq: “It is impossible to say that the rights of women were better under Saddam Hussein than they are today.” She said that women had been tortured, raped and killed under the leadership ousted by American troops.

The comments about Iraq underscored the uneasiness in Turkey since planning for the invasion began in 2002, when Turkish leaders equivocated and then declined to let American troops enter Iraq from the Turkish border. Turks are now worried that a federalized Iraq with a semiautonomous Kurdish region in its north would encourage Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey.

Ms. Hughes, near the end of her five-day trip, also met Wednesday with Turkish Foreign Ministry officials and flew from Ankara to Istanbul later for more sessions with groups of citizens and people the State Department says are “opinion leaders” picked by the consulate.

She toured Topkapi Palace, the seat of power and luxury in the old Ottoman Empire, where she held an “interfaith dialogue” with Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders. It was another staple of this trip, intended to emphasize that countries with large Muslim populations should understand that many Americans are also guided by religious convictions.

She called on each leader to discuss tolerance and said afterward: “They assured me that as faith leaders they are prepared to do their part. I hope this is the beginning of many such conversations.”

The women in Ankara were notable because their meeting with Ms. Hughes began congenially, with her host describing the importance of her support for their causes. But tough talk followed quickly, politely but firmly.

Feray Salman, a human rights campaigner, said that while she believed in democracy, the Bush administration was trying to export it by force. “States cannot interfere through wars,” she said. Turkey has charged the Bush administration with not denouncing violent acts by the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the P.K.K. Asked by one speaker why the United States refused to label the group a terrorist organization, Ms. Hughes said the administration had done just that.

“We condemn P.K.K. terrorism,” she said. But then she noted what she called an irony, that the women were expecting American support for the sometimes violent Turkish crackdown on Kurdish separatists while also denouncing American battles with insurgents in Iraq.

“Sometimes you have to engage in combat in order to confront terrorism,” Ms. Hughes said.

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