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WAR WITH IRAQ

War Strayed Into Turkey Even Before Missile Fell

The conflict has deprived villagers near the Iraqi border of their smuggling livelihood.

March 25, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

OZVEREN, Turkey — Emin Eryoldas considered himself a casualty of the Iraq conflict before it started, an oil smuggler deprived of his livelihood in recent months by the looming American assault on Saddam Hussein.

On Sunday, he nearly became the first Turkish citizen to die in that war.

Driving his 1992 Renault sedan past a wheat field at the edge of this village, Eryoldas heard a thundering crash and saw flames shoot from a spot in the road he had passed about 10 seconds earlier. There was no explosion, but everyone here knew in an instant that the war had strayed across Iraq's border into southeastern Turkey.

The U.S. Central Command in Qatar said Monday that two U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at Iraq from an undetermined warship had misfired into Turkey on Sunday, one landing here and the other near a village 90 miles away. No one was hurt in either incident.

But as Ozveren's 300 residents absorbed the news after a fretful night, they said the real damage was not the blackened missile crater in the muddy clay road or the fear of more bombs to come, but the trucks and empty three-ton fuel tanks idling outside their homes.

The war has deprived this settlement and many others near the Iraqi border of their main livelihood -- hauling diesel and crude oil from Iraq to Turkey in violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Eryoldas and others now struggling to feed their families said they oppose the war not only because it has thrown them out of work but also because they do not trust the Americans to deal them into the oil trade after Hussein is gone.

"We accept that Saddam is a dictator, but the fact is that we have been buying and selling his oil, earning good money for years and years," said Eryoldas, 23, who trucked fuel with his father. "In the Middle East, nobody knows the meaning of peace. All anyone thinks about is his own interests."

It is an article of faith among many in Turkey that President Bush -- despite his arguments about dictatorship and terrorism and illegal weapons -- has gone to war to get control of Iraqi oil and will work with his Kurdish allies in northern Iraq to bypass Turkey as an oil-trading route. This theory is popular in southeastern Turkey, where people depend on the oil trade and feel vulnerable to the shifting winds of international politics.

Turkey has been a regular customer for inexpensive crude oil and diesel smuggled through northern Iraq since international sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War limited the amount of oil allowed through a pipeline connecting the two countries. But the trade has dwindled in recent years -- first as Turkey tried to limit the share of smuggling revenue going to Iraqi Kurds, then as war approached.

The lost trade has devastated the southeast, Turkey's poorest region. More than 100,000 jobs have disappeared. People in this village, 214 miles from the Iraqi border, have turned back to subsistence farming, keeping geese and sheep outside their rudimentary stone houses.

Abdurrahman Yucel, a 15-year veteran of the smuggling business, said he and his three sons once made several hauls a month from Iraq, earning about $2,400 per trip. The frequency of hauls dwindled to once in three months in recent years and stopped when the border was effectively closed in January.

"I do not know whether after this war the border will be open to us," said the 62-year-old trucker-turned-farmer, seated on the floor and clutching worry beads in his tiny living room. "I don't believe the Americans came all this way to promote democracy. They came to take the oil trade for themselves."

A sense of powerlessness here grew this month as Turkey's longtime alliance with the United States came under severe strain. Parliament refused to allow thousands of U.S. troops to use Turkey as a base for attacking Iraq. Only after the war started did it vote to open Turkish airspace for American warplanes and missiles.

As they gathered on a ridge to stare down at the missile crater, villagers said even that grudging cooperation had been a mistake.

People here are ethnic Kurds, as are most residents of the southeastern region, and they still are recovering from a war between the Turkish army and Kurdish separatists that cost 30,000 lives in the 1980s and '90s. Sunday's missiles, which sounded like fighter jets overhead, brought the dread of war home again.

Late Monday, a group of U.S. military officers rolled into the village to inspect the missile and offer an apology. The missile was indeed American, they said, and the Pentagon was investigating .

"The Americans said they were very sorry about this situation and would be more careful next time," said a villager. "They promised to return Tuesday morning and take the missile away in a bomb-proof truck."

The response was unforgiving. As Turkish police kept them at a distance from the visitors, a crowd of villagers shouted: "No to war! No to war!"

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