A cross-party parliamentary commission will convene Thursday for its first meeting to assume an ambitious and potentially divisive mission to draft a new constitution for Turkey.

Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek made the announcement yesterday after the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, which was holding up the formation of the 12-member Preparatory Constitution Commission, named three high-profile figures as its representatives.

The BDP, Turkey's main Kurdish political movement, assigned lawmakers Sırrı Süreyya Önder, Altan Tan and Ayla Akat Ata to the panel, shortly after senior party members met with a delegation from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to discuss the constitution-making process.

Speaking after the meeting, AKP deputy chairman Ömer Çelik said all four parties in Parliament "have reached a full consensus that the conciliation commission should be set up and start working without pre-conditions."

Main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, however, insisted that his Republican People's Party, or CHP, had "red lines," including firm opposition to amending the first three articles of the current constitution, in a meeting with a visiting delegation from the European Parliament, party sources said.

The AKP's Çelik said the four parties had also agreed that the commission should set up mechanisms that would ensure input not only from legal experts but also from ordinary citizens.

He said Parliament would be the only venue to draft the new charter and rejected suggestions for the establishment of parallel bodies, which the BDP raised at the meeting.

There were tense but brief exchanges at the meeting when the BDP representatives decried the detention of dozens of fellow party members as part of a long-running probe into alleged urban collaborators of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, party sources said.

The BDP and CHP have called also for a series of democratization reforms to be carried out simultaneously with the constitution-making process.

Euro MPs in Parliament

The would-be new charter was also high on the agenda of a delegation from the liberal group in the European Parliament, which met with representatives of the four parties in Parliament yesterday to discuss Turkey's faltering bid to join the European Union.

Guy Verhofstadt, head of the delegation, hailed the cross-party consensus to start working on a new constitution, saying that a successful completion of the process would serve as an answer to Turkey's many critics in Europe.

"We are aware of our shortcomings. With or without EU membership, Turkey is trying to accomplish the structural and legal arrangements that are required for a high-standard democracy," said Parliament Speaker Çiçek, stressing that the current constitution was the source of many outstanding problems.

Verhofstadt warned that the Cyprus conflict remained a major stumbling block for Turkey's EU bid, suggesting that a solution could become easier if the settlement is sought not under U.N. auspices but within the EU, according to Anatolia news agency. He added that 2012 would be critical for the ultimate fate of Turkey's membership talks.

According to information obtained by the Hürriyet Daily News, Verhofstadt described the current state of the negotiations as a "deadlock" in his meeting with BDP lawmakers.

BDP's deputy group chairman Hasip Kaplan blamed the standstill on what he described as the lack of AKP commitment to democratic reform. The new charter, he said, should be inclusive, democratic and impartial to ethnic and religious identities and based on a broad concept of constitutional citizenship.


Berlin, Ankara to Discuss Joint Action Against PKK

Turkish and German foreign ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu and Guido Westerwelle will meet Thursday in Istanbul to discuss joint cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in their first meeting after the prime minister accused several German foundations of indirectly supporting the terrorist group.

The foreign ministers agreed to meet following a phone conversation over the weekend. Westerwelle will arrive in Istanbul for the inauguration of the German Cultural Institute in the Tarabya district of Istanbul. A reception will also be held at the institute late Thursday.

According to Turkish diplomatic sources, Davutoğlu will outline the functions of some undercover PKK-affiliated groups under the title of cultural offices.

Turkish intelligence believes these offices are both working for the propaganda wing of the PKK and fundraising. Sources said Davutoğlu was not planning to raise specific activities of the German foundations but would ask the government to better scrutinize them. The two ministers will also talk about the agenda of the upcoming visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Germany on Nov. 1.


Turkey to Ask for Closure of Makhour Camp

Turkey is set to again push for the dissolution of the Makhmour refugee camp, a United Nations-camp in northern Iraq that Ankara claims is prime recruiting ground for Kurdish militants, when the Iraqi foreign minister arrives tomorrow for talks, according to a diplomat.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, established the Makhmour camp between Arbil and Mosul in 1992 for nearly 12,000 Kurdish refugees who fled to northern Iraq in the early 1990s, following clashes in Southeast Anatolia.

Because of the alleged outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK link, however, the Turkish government is preparing to again call for its dissolution when Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visits Ankara later this week.

In previous talks, Ankara offered to foster the necessary conditions in Turkey to allow the refugees to voluntarily return home.

Zebari will visit Ankara tomorrow for talks to focus on preparations for the next meeting of the bilateral cooperation council, which will be held in Turkey later this year with the participation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News.

During his Oct. 12 Turkey visit, Zebari will also travel to the southeastern province of Gaziantep to inaugurate an Iraqi consulate. Measures to curb Kurdish militants based in northern Iraq will also be in the agenda, the diplomat added.

Noting that UN protection was not enough to prevent the PKK from receiving logistical assistance from the camp, Zebari said Turkey had asked to "annul the UN's supervision over the camp and turn over the authority to Baghdad."

The UN-supervised Makhmour camp is approximately 100 kilometers from Arbil. Although the area is attached to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the Kurds have attempted to distance themselves from efforts to provide control over the camp, instead trying to shift the responsibility to Baghdad, the diplomat said.

Baghdad also denies responsibility over the camp, Zebari said, but added that the government would "keep the issue on the agenda."


Iran Captures, Releases PKK Leader, Report Claims

Iranian security forces captured senior outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, leader Murat Karayılan in August, but later released him after negotiations with the terrorist organization, a Turkish daily reported on Tuesday.

The claim was put forth by Yeni Şafak daily columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, who said Iran was planning operations against bases of the PKK's Iranian offshoot, a group called the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, in the Kandil Mountains and suggested carrying out joint military operations with Turkey. Turkey reportedly preferred intelligence-sharing to a joint operation and the country's National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, informed Tehran of Karayılan's location.

Iranian forces then reportedly captured Karayılan and his accomplices just a few days before Turkey launched an air offensive against PKK bases in Kandil. They were taken to the Iranian city of Urumiyya. Selvi says the fact that Iranian forces captured Karayılan a few days before Turkish airstrikes on Kandil and the fact that they took the PKK leader from Kandil and released him after a short while raise questions about whether Tehran had saved the PKK leader from strikes. On Aug. 18, the Turkish military launched aerial attacks on PKK targets in northern Iraq, killing up to 160 terrorists.

The daily claims that Iran did not inform Ankara about Karayılan's capture and his transfer to Urumiyya and that the Tehran administration then released Karayılan after talks with the PKK. The content of the talks, however, were not released.

The Anatolia news agency reported on Aug. 14 that Iranian Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Chairman, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, had said Karayılan had been captured by Iranian security forces. According to Anatolia, Boroujerdi confirmed weekend news reports of Karayılan's capture from the Iranian Fars news agency.

"The number two man of the PKK has been captured. Our intelligence forces accomplished a significant achievement by capturing Karayılan," he was quoted as saying by Fars. Anatolia ran a correction later in the day, however, saying Boroujerdi had actually said: "The number two man of the PKK has been captured," without explicitly referring to Karayılan.

The explanation did not satisfy Turkey with Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç saying on Aug. 23 that "the whereabouts of Karayılan had not yet been clarified."

"There have still been no news reports with recent images of or statements from Karayılan. There is something about this we don't know, but we can't explain what," Arınç said.

Arınç once again commented on the issue on Tuesday, giving credit to the report.

"There might have been bargaining between Iran and the PKK. It will come to light soon," he told reporters when asked about the Yeni Şafak report.


Syrian National Council to Send Representatives to Ankara

In a move that may bolster the legitimacy of Syria's present opposition leadership, members of the Syrian National Council, or SNC, will send a delegation to Ankara this week to meet with officials from the Foreign Ministry, according to SNC spokesperson and Syrian dissident Khaled Khoja.

"We plan to meet with members of the Foreign Ministry in order to introduce our policy and a roadmap to the Turkish government," Khoja told Today's Zaman in an interview on Monday.

He also said that it will be the first time the SNC, which represents a diverse group of opposition voices within Syria, will consult with Ankara over its resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The move would showcase both Ankara's growing willingness to court formal ties to the Syrian opposition movement, and the council's ongoing quest to gain recognition from the international community.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denies that the meeting is on its agenda, but sources close to Today's Zaman, who wish to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, confirmed reports that the meeting may take place in the coming week.

If held, the meeting would be the first step in what Oytun Orhan, a Middle East expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or ORSAM, claims would be "a big step in conferring legitimacy on the Syrian Council."

"Granting the Syrian Council a meeting may mean the government will soon be willing to grant them official recognition," Orhan said. "This, in turn, would confer international legitimacy on the council. If Turkey stands behind them, it would confirm them as the official opposition movement."

Opposition Seeks Unified Voice

Khaled said the meeting will be used to formally present the aims of the council to the Turkish authorities, which includes the demands that "Assad must fall, that his regime must be replaced by a civil constitution and that protests against the regime must remain peaceful."

The council's agreement on the broad aims of its mission comes after a period of intense debate between members of the diverse opposition council.

The council, which Khaled states is presently made up of "the Muslim Brotherhood, leftist secularists, Syrian Christians, Kurds and Arab nationalists," has, by its very nature, led to divisions in the opposition voice.

"There are many different groups in the opposition movement. The reason why it has taken six months to make unified decisions is this," he said.

Council members said infighting was largely overcome following a meeting last week in İstanbul, where members agreed on a broad framework for regime change and vowed to elect leaders in the coming weeks.

"The council had met formerly, but the result was too fragmented, with only the voices of individuals or groups," Orhan said, adding that "it seems the most powerful elements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have given their support to the council. Before, they were threatening to walk out."

The council seemed to take yet another step toward solidarity during a meeting in Stockholm on Monday, when The Associated Press reported that the SNC had agreed on a "democratic framework" for a government that might replace al-Assad. The council also announced its desire for international observers to monitor the regime's activities in Syria and declared that international sanctions must be implemented to target individuals loyal to Damascus.

The council urged its opposition to impose broad sanctions that would target ordinary Syrians, the AP reported.

If the council can develop formal ties with Ankara, it may provide the clearest signal yet to both Syrians and the international community that it should be considered the official representative of Syria's opposition groups.

"If Turkey stands behind them, it would confirm them as the official opposition movement," Orhan said. "They are not seeking recognition from the United States, for instance, because it could delegitimize them in Syria or among some Arab countries. Support from Turkey could give them support in the West and in the Middle East."

The meeting between SNC members and Turkish officials would follow a warning by Syrian officials on Sunday that "measures would be taken" against any powers that supported the "illegitimate council." Syrian officials have also protested Turkish plans to go ahead with sanctions against Damascus, saying on Sunday that "[Turkey's] hostility will backfire on them."


Turkey Not an Election Tool, Ankara Tells French Presidential Candidates

In light of France's upcoming presidential elections, Ankara has urged French politicians not to use Turkey as a tool in their campaigns after both French President Nicholas Sarkozy and prominent Socialist candidate François Hollande exploited the Armenian "genocide" claims last week.

Turkey's Ambassador to Paris, Tahsin Burcuoğlu, expressed Ankara's uneasiness with Sarkozy's remarks in a meeting with the French President's foreign policy advisor Jean-David Levitte on Saturday.

Burcuoğlu sent a letter to Hollande urging him to avoid making Turkey a daily domestic political issue after the prominent socialist candidate promised backing the draft of a law criminalizing the denial of Armenian genocide, the Hürriyet Daily News learned.

"The message we have conveyed does not solely refer to Sarkozy, but to the entire French political class," a senior Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News. "We have underlined that this kind of rhetoric does not serve anything other than to ruin our bilateral relations. We want to improve our relations, but these statements are not helpful to this end."

Roughly 400,000 French citizens of Armenian descent reside in France, comprising an influential political group. Sarkozy, who risks losing his seat to Socialists, visited Armenia last week, where he threatened Turkey to recognize the killings of Armenians during World War I at the hands of Ottoman Empire as genocide before his presidential mandate expires next May or he would adopt a law criminalizing the denial of genocide.

"We know all French politicians are making similar statements, but Sarkozy was very careless in doing so as he tried to threaten Turkey just a few steps away from our soil," the diplomat said.


Constitution Preparation Committee to Hold First Meeting Thursday

Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek has called on the committee set up to prepare Turkey's new constitution to hold its first meeting on October 13.

The committee will consist of Justice and Development Party, or AKP, deputies Mehmet Ali Sahin, Ahmet Iyimaya and Mustafa Sentop; Republican People's Party, or CHP, deputies Atilla Kart, Suheyl Batum and Riza Turmen; Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, deputies Faruk Bal, Tunca Toskay and Oktay Ozturk, and Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, deputies Ayla Akat Ata, Sirri Sureyya Onder and Altan Tan.

Turkey has been operating under the 1982 constitution, which replaced the constitution of 1961, after it was ratified by popular referendum during the military junta of 1980-83.


Turkey's Minority Schools Get Textbooks

Students at Istanbul's Greek minority schools have finally received their course books after the Education Ministry's Board of Education and Discipline approved the texts, following an article that appeared in the Hürriyet Daily News on Oct. 4.

The Greek language and math course books sent from Greece in May were not handed over to the schools, as the Turkish Foreign and Education ministries had failed to approve them.

The students have been studying from photocopies for years, as the last books arrived from Greece as far back as 1990, the Daily News reported on Oct. 4.

According to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the Turkish minority in Western Thrace in Greece receive their class books from Turkey, while the Greek minority in Istanbul receives their books from Greece.

The books have to be inspected and approved by the Foreign Ministries of both countries. Until the 2000s, as with many other subjects, quarrels broke out between Greece and Turkey over the issue of classroom books.


Ankara Car Bomb Death Toll Rises to Five

The death toll from the Sept. 20 car bombing in Ankara rose to five yesterday after a critically wounded man died in the hospital.

Halis Öztürk, 68, had been undergoing treatment for severe burns at Ankara's Numune Hospital for severe burns.

Three people were killed at the scene and more than 30 were wounded when the bomb, planted in the trunk of a car parked in a busy street, exploded. A fourth victim died in the hospital earlier this month.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, claimed responsibility for the attack while threatening it was just the "beginning" to more armed action. Police are still trying to catch the bomber, images of whom were recorded on security cameras in the vicinity.


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