ANKARA - Perhaps no other living Turk personifies the problems, triumphs, and perspectives of this country better than Suleyman Demirel.
Prime minister seven times, president twice, twice deposed by the military, banned from politics for a decade, he is both the political godfather of Turkey's current Islamist-based rulers and the survivor of an assassination attempt by Islamic extremists.
At 80, he is recognized by Turks across the political spectrum as a wise man and a hero, a leader who managed the conflicting tugs of the West and the Middle East and the tensions between Islamists and secularists that constantly roil Turkish politics.
Demirel sat pasha-like in the salon of his home here one recent wintry day, amid piles of books, gilded swords, and exquisitely carved ivories, discussing current events and problems with two dozen officials, political professionals, and ordinary citizens who came to one of his twice-weekly ''public days.''
Then he turned to a visiting American and explained why more than 80 percent of the Turkish population, according to recent polls, want their country to stay out of a US assault on Iraq, and to refuse the United States the use of Turkish ports and air bases.
''You don't want Saddam, we don't want Saddam, but for years you didn't do anything,'' Demirel said of the United States. ''If you move him now'' without establishing an accepted international legal framework ''it will upset the international system. ... If you say `I am a superpower, I don't care,' it will destroy the United Nations. The United Nations should not be destroyed.''
Apart from questions of legality and concerns about conditions in a postwar Iraq, Turkey worries that a war would damage its relations with Arab nations and with the Kurds of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
It does not want a war inflaming the already nasty ethnic animosities among the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen - ethnic Turks - of northern Iraq. It is fearful of the possibility that a Kurdish state could be declared in the north, and that it might itself feel compelled to lay claim to the oil-rich Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk to prevent such a state from taking them over. Turkey does not want to fight in the Arab world, which still harbors resentment of the four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule that preceded World War I.
''After 85 years, we still have problems with the Arab world'' because of the long Ottoman domination, Demirel said. ''In their textbooks, there is still hostility based on the past.
''We very much urge our friend the United States not to act alone,'' he said. ''England and Turkey is not enough'' international support. ''With Egypt and Saudi Arabia, we can say convincingly it is not the Turks against the Arabs. Definitely Turkey will act with the international community.''
Demirel, a principal architect of Turkey's strategic alliances with the United States and Israel, asks earnestly that Americans understand.
''We are very thankful'' for US support for Turkey in its internal war on terrorism, in its bid to join the European Union, and in its past economic crises, Demirel said. ''If we are asked to do something because America is our friend ... that is OK as long as it is not war. War is something more. It needs international legality.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company