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Turkey's Army loses luster over PKK attack

Amid daily fighting, including an clash Thursday that killed 10, unprecedented public criticism is mounting over an Oct. 3 attack.

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On guard: Turkish soldiers patrol in the southeast, near Iraq, where clashes with Kurdish rebels often occur.

Murad Sezer/AP

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Long seen as the country's most trusted institution and as the ultimate defender of the state, the Turkish military is suddenly facing fire from an unlikely source: the public.

In the wake of an Oct. 3 attack by guerrillas from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on a border outpost, in which 17 Turkish soldiers were killed, the Army has been facing an unprecedented level of criticism, accused of negligence in the death of the soldiers and ineptitude in its ongoing fight against the PKK.

The military's image took a further blow when Turkish newspapers widely circulated a picture of Air Force Commander Gen. Aydogan Babaoglu on vacation playing golf the day after the bloody attack, seemingly oblivious to what had happened.

"Resign, My Pasa," was the front-page headline in the popular Vatan newspaper, using the Ottoman term for military generals. In a country where the military and its exploits are almost worshiped, this kind of open criticism of a general was a first.

This harsh criticism may be an indication of the continuing dilution of the Turkish military's formidable political power and an important step toward strengthening Turkey's struggling democratization process. It may also prod the government toward developing new, civilian-led strategies in dealing with the Kurdish problem.

"We can say that we are passing to a new phase in the Turkish civilian-military relationship," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a political analyst with the Kanal D television network. "The press used to be afraid of criticizing the military; it was very careful not to do that. Now it's just the contrary. We've never seen criticism like this before."

"It's a new era," he adds.

The Turkish military certainly appears to be standing on unfamiliar ground. For decades, the Army has been Turkey's dominant political force, seen as the ultimate protector of the country's political stability and of its secular system of government. Since 1960, Turkey's generals have pushed four governments out of office.

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