Iraqi Kurd officials lobbying for independence in Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports: Senior officials from the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan are in Washington laying the groundwork for a formal bid for independence, despite opposition from the Obama administration.

Key aides to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have met staff from the State Department, White House and Congress over the past two days, describing what the Kurds say is the “new reality” in Iraq. Numerous territories in the west of the country have fallen in recent weeks to the militant group Islamic State, which recently changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Mr. Barzani is moving to hold a referendum among Iraq’s Kurdish population, after which the government in the Kurdish capital of Erbil could seek to formally secede, his top aides told a gathering of reporters Thursday.

“If we can’t live together, we will go for divorce,” said Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, who met Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “It is now about a new reality.”

A move toward Kurdish independence would represent a repudiation of Obama administration policy, which seeks to maintain a united Iraq. U.S. officials worry that Kurdish independence could fuel secessionist bids by Kurdish territories in other parts of the Middle East, particularly Turkey and Syria. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey opposes possible U.S. strikes on militants in Iraq

Today’s Zaman reports: Turkey objected to possible US air strikes on militant targets in Iraq on Thursday, a day after the US announced that the Iraqi government has officially asked for such attacks to help it deal with a mounting insurgency that now threatens Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said any air strike on Iraq could cause considerable civilian deaths and that the US does not view such a strategy as favorable.

In his remarks in Ankara, before departing for Vienna on Thursday, Erdoğan indicated that Turkey, which has seen 80 of its citizens held captive by the insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq more than a week ago, will not welcome an air attack on Iraq.

“America, looking at its stance and recent statements, does not view such attacks positively. Because the ISIL elements are mixed with the civilians there, such an operation could result in a serious number of civilian deaths,” Erdoğan said. [Continue reading...]

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Three reasons why Turkey misunderstands ISIS

Mustafa Akyol writes: Many Turkish opinion leaders, especially those in the pro-government media, cannot accept ISIS, or its ilk, as extremist Islamist actors with genuinely held beliefs and self-defined goals. Rather they take it for granted that these terror groups are merely the pawns of a great game designed by none other than the Western powers.

For example, Abdulkadir Selvi, a senior journalist who has been quite vocal in the press and on television generally espousing a pro-government stance, wrote a piece last week titled “Who is ISIS working for?” This was his answer: “Al-Qaeda was a useful instrument for the US. To put it in an analogy, ISIS was born from al-Qaeda’s relationship with [the] CIA. The West gave its manners to al-Qaeda and now it designs our region through the hands of ISIS.” In short, al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIS are both creations of the US Central Intelligence Agency and serve American interests.

Writing in the same pro-government daily, Yeni Şafak, the prominent columnist Yusuf Kaplan took a similar position. His culprit, however, was not the United States, but the United Kingdom. He wrote, “There is no such thing as ISIS. There is rather a heinous power called England … al-Qaeda was an instrument of the Americans, whereas ISIS is an instrument of the English.”

Yet another writer with strong pro-government views, Cemil Ertem, advanced a conspiratorial line in his column in the daily Star, but added a crucial element. ISIS, he argued, is “the product of the same center that also orchestrated Dec. 17″ — referring to the day the corruption investigation, or “coup attempt,” against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became public. Accordingly, that conspiratorial “center” first tried to topple Erdogan with a bogus corruption investigation, and when that failed, it reignited Kurdish tensions in the country and finally ordered ISIS to attack “Turkey’s political and economic assets in Iraq.”

I quoted just three writers, but there are many similar examples. It would not be unfair to say that this conspiratorial understanding of ISIS is a powerful, if not dominant, narrative within Turkey’s pro-government media. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq crisis hits Turkish economy

Mehmet Cetingulec writes: After ISIS took control of Mosul and began advancing toward other towns, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry warned hundreds of Turkish companies and thousands of Turkish workers to leave Anbar, Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, Kirkuk, Mosul and Salahuddin. Two major Turkish banks closed their branches in Baghdad. As Turks began the evacuation, the fallout on commerce became alarming. More than 1,500 Turkish companies operate throughout Iraq, and when some of them hastily closed their offices after ISIS went on the attack, more than 2,000 trucks headed to Iraq had to turn back.

The surrender of Iraqi towns to ISIS also hit the Turkish markets. The Istanbul stock exchange had climbed to 81,600 points on June 10. After ISIS occupied Mosul, within four days, the index fell to 77,646, a 4,000-point loss. Foreign exchange parity rose, while interest rates and oil prices rose. The worst effect has been the added burden to Turkey’s energy bill.

Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekci thinks, however, that Mosul will not adversely affect Turkey. In a statement to the daily Milliyet, he said there were no problems in places such as Sulaimaniyah and Erbil, and that events in Mosul were therefore unlikely to have any negative bearing on Turkish exports.

Parts of Zeybekci’s surprising statement also appeared accepting of a fragmentation of Iraq. He said, “Borders that were drawn superficially 60 years ago will be re-demarcated. Parts of the region will find their right places. There is so much diversity, with Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, Turkmen and Kurds. Then there are plenty of radical groups. They all want to have a say. The region is so sick that all germs freely attack it.”

Although Zeybekci seems relaxed about the current situation, exporters are not. [Continue reading...]

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Sectarian hatred — the driving force behind ISIS

Those self-obsessed Americans who are convinced that the dream of anyone dubbed a terrorist is that some day they will be able to attack the U.S., are now wondering how soon a new 9/11-like plot might emerge from the territory controlled by ISIS. But the organization that is still being referred to as an al Qaeda affiliate, never regarded as America as its principle enemy.

Back in 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who started Al Qaeda in Iraq (which then became the Islamic State of Iraq and in 2013 the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)) wrote a letter to the al Qaeda leadership in which he said:

The American army has begun to disappear from some cities, and its presence is rare. An Iraqi army has begun to take its place, and this is the real problem that we face, since our combat against the Americans is something easy. The enemy is apparent, his back is exposed, and he does not know the land or the current situation of the mujahidin because his intelligence information is weak. We know for certain that these Crusader forces will disappear tomorrow or the day after. He who looks at the current situation [will] see the enemy’s haste to constitute the army and the police, which have begun to carry out the missions assigned to them. This enemy, made up of the Shi’a filled out with Sunni agents, is the real danger that we face, for it is [made up of] our fellow countrymen, who know us inside and out. They are more cunning than their Crusader masters, and they have begun, as I have said, to try to take control of the security situation in Iraq. They have liquidated many Sunnis and many of their Ba’th Party enemies and others beholden to the Sunnis in an organized, studied way. They began by killing many mujahid brothers, passing to the liquidation of scientists, thinkers, doctors, engineers, and others. I believe, and God knows best, that the worst will not come to pass until most of the American army is in the rear lines and the secret Shi’i army and its military brigades are fighting as its proxy. They are infiltrating like snakes to reign over the army and police apparatus, which is the strike force and iron fist in our Third World, and to take complete control over the economy like their tutors the Jews. As the days pass, their hopes are growing that they will establish a Shi’i state stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and ending in the Cardboard Kingdom of the Gulf.

Given ISIS’s well-documented roots in Iraq, it’s strange that one currently hears it said that ISIS was created by Turkey.

In a podcast by Aaron Stein, an Associate Fellow at RUSI, he interviews Aaron Zelin from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and they examine the purported links between Turkey and ISIS. I’ve posted the audio below, but the gist of Zelin’s view is that while the growth of ISIS has been supported by Turkey’s open border policy, the Turk’s willingness to allow foreign fighters passage to Syria has always been driven by the desire to topple the Assad regime rather than an interest in supporting ISIS.

ISIS views Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an “apostate” and with 49 staff members captured in a raid on the Turkish consulate in Mosul last week, the columnist Amberin Zaman says that the raid may serve as “a warning to Turkey of the consequences it is likely to face should it tighten the screws on jihadist groups moving across its borders.”

Reporting from Baghdad, Richard Engel says:

If Maliki starts acting like Assad?

On May 11, Al Jazeera reported on the Iraq army’s use of barrel bombs in Fallujah:

Shelling by the Iraqi army in the city of Fallujah has killed more civilians, hospital sources and witnesses have said, amid allegations that government forces were using barrel bombs in an attempt to drive out anti-government fighters from the area,

The use of barrel bombs in civilian areas is banned under international conventions given their indiscriminate nature.

But Mohammed al-Jumaili, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera that the army has dropped many barrel bombs “targeting mosques, houses and markets” in Fallujah.

Local hospital sources said the situation was getting worse for many people who had been trapped in the city since the army cut off a key bridge.

The Iraqi government has denied the use of barrel bombs and asserted that it was fighting in a “humane way”.

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the capital Baghdad, said that despite the government’s denial, there was strong evidence that barrel bombs havd been used in Fallujah.

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Conflict shows new, closer Turk-Iraqi Kurdish ties

The Wall Street Journal reports: The military posture of northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government to defend itself against advancing Islamist rebels spotlights a reversal in one of the region’s most toxic relationships: Between Turkey and the Kurds.

In previous years, Kurdish assertiveness — even in neighboring Iraq — was often countered by Turkey, which for more than a quarter century was locked in a deadly conflict with Kurdish separatists in its own country before launching peace talks in 2012.

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, Turkey has built close ties to the Kurdish government in its regional capital of Erbil, Iraq, expanding bilateral trade and coordinating vital policy issues, including the civil war in Syria.

Underscoring that trend, Turkey has kept mum on Erbil’s mobilization to defend its borders this past week by deploying its Peshmerga troops into the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk. In past decades, Turkey has fiercely objected any Kurdish advances in Kirkuk, maintaining that the city has a multi-ethnic character and a large population of Iraqi Turkmens.

Turkey is itself preoccupied with freeing about 80 hostages captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) when the Sunni Muslim rebel group captured Mosul this past week.

Kurdish officials now agree that the fate of Turkey and the Kurds are entwined, and policy increasingly reflects shared economic and security interests. [Continue reading...]

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Obama prepared to work with Assad

Leslie Gelb writes: This may well surprise experts, but senior administration officials tell me that Obama has been modifying his objective and is now prepared to work with Assad, to some degree, along with the moderate rebels, against what the White House finally has come to see as the real and major threat — the jihadists. These senior officials further say that they expect support in this new policy from previous opponents, i.e. from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Reuters reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s certain victory in an election next month, derided internationally as a charade, leaves Turkey facing a bitter truth – its assumption of his quick demise was a costly miscalculation.

With al Qaeda-linked armed groups controlling patches of territory across Turkey’s southern border and a registered refugee influx set to top a million within months, Syria’s three-year old war presents Ankara with an increasing financial burden and a growing security threat.

A gun battle in March when special forces raided the suspected Istanbul hide-out of an Islamist militant group active in Syria highlighted the potential threat to Turkey from the thousands of foreign jihadis who have been drawn into the conflict, a portion of them entering Syria over the Turkish border.

The torching of a building housing Syrian refugees in Ankara this month meanwhile pointed to anger at the growing social and economic costs of a humanitarian response which has already cost Turkey close to $3 billion.

With Assad facing no serious challenger in a June 3 election which his Western and Arab foes, as well as the Syrian opposition, have dismissed as a parody of democracy, such tensions are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. [Continue reading...]

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Erdogan won the elections, but will he convince the Turkish people?

Yavuz Baydar writes: Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, passed a very critical test on Sunday with a sweeping victory in the municipal elections, which were really about the country’s political direction and existential choice.

If the results were seen as sort of a dress rehearsal for next year’s general elections, the Justice and Development party (AKP), which has ruled the country for 12 years, proves once more that it still lacks a formidable foe, and feels even more encouraged to enhance its power.

But this election went beyond a party test; it was about whether or not Erdogan’s constantly toughening administrative policies, his moves to erode the separation of powers and curb basic freedoms, and his fierce battle for survival has mass approval.

It does. More than 45% of the voters said yes, higher than most predictions. Erdogan constructed his survival strategy with a simple calculation: would the middle class and those below, to which his party presented a prosperity no other predecessor managed, give up what they see as economic gains? Would they choose to abandon stability by shifting to two other parties who were not at all convincing?

The AKP segment showed loyalty and sent a clear message: it does not care as much about freedom, internet bans, de facto suspension of the rule of law, defiance of the corruption investigations, intolerance to all dissent, and violence against those who want to exercise their right to demonstrate. Voters shrugged en masse and collectively signalled that the journey ahead for this fully fledged democracy was doomed to pass over a dense minefield. The result also displayed the resistance of patriarchalism and the approval for nepotism and cronyism. [Continue reading...]

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Erdogan declares victory in Turkey election and turns on opposition

Reuters reports: The Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, declared victory for his party in local polls and said he would “enter the lair” of enemies who have accused him of corruption and leaked state secrets. “They will pay for this,” he said.

Erdogan, fighting the biggest challenge of his 12-year rule, addressed supporters from a balcony at AKP headquarters, after the end of a long and bitter election campaign in which he had labelled his opponents “terrorists” and an “alliance of evil”.

The harsh tone of his balcony address suggested he felt he now had a mandate for strong action against his enemies. “From tomorrow, there may be some who flee,” he said.

The election campaign has been dominated by a power struggle between Erdogan and a moderate US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of using a network of followers in the police and judiciary to fabricate accusations of corruption in an effort to topple him. Erdogan has purged thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors since anti-corruption raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers.

“We will enter their lair,” he said. “They will pay the price, they will be brought to account. How can you threaten national security?” [Continue reading...]

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Turkish security breach exposes Erdogan in power struggle

a13-iconReuters reports: Turkey’s spymaster discusses possible military intervention in Syria with army and civilian chiefs, and days later their words are broadcast on the internet for all the world to hear.

The breach appeared to highlight a disturbing truth for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: that Turkey can no longer keep even top-level security planning secret, despite his purge of thousands of officials to root out a covert network of enemies he accuses of trying to sabotage the state and topple him.

“This crisis is one of the biggest in Turkish history,” a senior government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters. “A serious concern has certainly emerged regarding what follows now…If a meeting such as this has been listened to, others may have. We do not know who is in possession of them.”

Erdogan was out of public action on Friday, resting his voice strained by campaigning for local elections this weekend – the first in a string that will decide the future of a man who has reformed Turkey fundamentally but is now accused by critics of authoritarian and divisive tendencies. [Continue reading...]

Reuters also reports: If Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is fighting the toughest battle of his political career as corruption allegations swirl and elections approach, Turkey’s conservative Anatolian heartlands appear to have his back.

Here, far from dividing his pious core supporters, the graft scandal and bitter power struggle with a U.S.-based cleric have served only to stir more devotion to a man they see as Turkey’s greatest modern leader, delivering hospitals and schools and breaking the grip of secular elites over the past decade.

The run-up to pivotal local elections on Sunday has been overshadowed by a corruption affair that has seen almost daily recordings published anonymously on social media claiming to show illicit dealings by Erdogan’s inner circle.

One senior official called the crisis “one of the biggest in Turkish history” and the government has responded by blocking Twitter and YouTube, drawing public anger and international condemnation.

But in Konya, a conservative city that gave Erdogan’s AK Party 70 percent of the vote in a 2011 general election, many see the scandal as the prime minister does: part of a “dirty plot” to unseat him by ruthless and immoral political enemies.

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Turkey YouTube ban: Full transcript of leaked Syria ‘war’ conversation between Erdogan officials

n13-iconInternational Business Times reports: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ban of YouTube occurred after a leaked conversation between Head of Turkish Intelligence Hakan Fidan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that he wanted removed from the video-sharing website.

The leaked call details Erdogan’s thoughts that an attack on Syria “must be seen as an opportunity for us [Turkey]“.

In the conversation, intelligence chief Fidan says that he will send four men from Syria to attack Turkey to “make up a cause of war”.

Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yaşar Güler replies that Fidan’s projected actions are “a direct cause of war…what you’re going to do is a direct cause of war”.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the leaked recording of top officials discussing the Syria operation was “partially manipulated” and is a “wretched attack” on national security.

In the leaked video, Fidan is discussing with Davutoğlu, Güler and other officials a possible operation within Syria to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman empire.

Full transcript (translated by @castizbey): [Continue reading...]

Reuters adds: Turkey threatened two weeks ago to retaliate for any attack on the tomb following clashes between militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda breakaway group, and rival rebel groups in the area, east of Aleppo near the Turkish border.

“An operation against ISIL has international legitimacy. We will define it as al Qaeda. There are no issues on the al Qaeda framework. When it comes to the Suleyman Shah tomb, it’s about the protection of national soil,” a voice presented as that of foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu says.

When the discussion turns to the need to justify such an operation, the voice purportedly of Fidan says: “Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is, I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.”

The foreign ministry said it was natural for state officials to discuss defending Turkish territory.

“In the meeting it was confirmed that Turkey would take necessary steps decisively to protect the security of our personnel at the Suleyman Shah tomb and Turkey’s will to defend it in the face of an attack was reiterated,” the statement said.

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Human Rights Watch: Turkey’s YouTube block violates free expression

o13-iconHuman Rights Watch: The Turkish government’s decision to close down YouTube by administrative order is a disastrous move for freedom of expression and the right to access information in Turkey. The government similarly closed down Twitter on March 21. The restrictions violate Turkey’s obligations under international human rights law and domestic law.

The closure of YouTube by a decision of Turkey’s Telecommunications Communication Directorate came shortly after two leaked conversations were posted on the site. The conversations purported to be the foreign minister, his undersecretary, the head of the National Intelligence Agency, and deputy chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces discussing Turkey’s Syria policy.

“The decision to close down a whole website because of some content is arbitrary, disproportionate, and a flagrant violation of free speech and the right to access information online,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Turkey at Human Rights Watch. “The order blocking YouTube should be reversed immediately, and access to Twitter restored without delay.” [Continue reading...]

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Yes, we ban: Deconstructing Erdogan’s language

o13-iconZeynep Zileli Rabanea writes: When it comes to being resourceful to overcome challenges, Turks always find a way. They have the humour, quick wittedness, and a soul rebellious enough to make their voice heard. But most importantly they have experience with censorship and bullying intimidation tactics by those in power.

On March 20, Facebook was full of numbers posted by Turkish users. The call was for Twitter users to change their DNS settings to 8.8.8.8 – 8.8.4.4 in order to continue having access to the widely used social media site in Turkey, which had been shut down upon Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s orders. Twitter’s “crime” was being the platform where audio recordings showing corruption in Erdogan’s inner circle were circulating.
With a week left before municipal elections in Turkey, Erdogan’s decision is not a foolish move politically. Erdogan had come to power in the first place by cleverly playing on Turkish people’s sense of pride, and now relies again on the same “us against them” strategy.

Although Erdogan has many critics because of his actions of intimidation, he has just as many supporters who get off on his talks that tap into the country’s long felt inferiority complex against the West, and at home against the western half of Turkey.

One of Erdogan’s talents is knowing how to play on the weaknesses of his public. This was exactly the message in a speech delivered one week before the elections: “Twitter, schmitter! We will wipe out all of these… The International community can say this or that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.”

A statement which received cheers from a frenzied audience. [Continue reading...]

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Erdogan blocks Twitter. #ErdoganBlockedTwitter now trending — in Turkey

Hurriyet Daily News reports: The number of messages tweeted by users in Turkey has not dropped since access to Twitter was banned, statistics have shown. What’s more, the hashtags #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #TurkeyBlockedTwitter became trending topics worldwide only a few hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his intention to “wipe out” the microblogging website.

According a report from Twitturk, which records the statistics of Turkish Twitter users, over half a million tweets were posted in just 10 hours, despite the ban.

That number would mark no sharp fall from the average number of tweets posted in the country, which is around 1.8 million per day.

“I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic’s state,” Erdoğan said when he announced the ban.

Everyone is now witnessing the power of the state and the fact that it is less than Turkey’s prime minister seems to have imagined.

What that seems to imply is that when Erdoğan issued his order, no one around him had the guts to tell him it wouldn’t work.

Either that, or they purposefully set him up, knowing that this show of strength would quickly become a very public display of his impotence.

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Hours after Erdoğan’s threat, Turkish gov’t restricts access to Twitter

Erdogan "We Will Root Out Twitter" & the historical pigeon carrier symbolising other social media formsToday’s Zaman reports: Hours after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to shut down Twitter and other social media platforms, government has restricted access to Twitter in most parts of the country, citing a court ruling on Thursday.

During a rally, Erdoğan said he did not care about the international response, his latest outburst in an increasingly bitter election campaign.

Hours after his threat, the Turkish government rushed to partially restrict access to Twitter, sparking public outrage on social media as people sought ways to avoid the restriction.

Thousands of tweets flooded in Twitter, vehemently criticizing the government ban. With partial ban on Twitter, Turkey now stands along with countries such as N.Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia on internet freedom. [Continue reading...]

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Across Turkey, new unrest as Berkin Elvan is buried

Berkin-Elvan

The New York Times reports: An enormous outpouring of grief and antigovernment rage during the funeral procession for a teenage boy felled by a police tear-gas canister turned into another mass confrontation with the Turkish authorities on Wednesday as mourners clashed with antiriot squads in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. At least one person was killed.

The new unrest came a day after protesters battled with police officers in at least 15 cities over news that the boy, Berkin Elvan, 15, had died. He had been comatose with head trauma since June, when Turkey was first engulfed with antigovernment protests against the decade-old tenure of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian.

The boy, who was struck by a tear-gas canister while buying bread, has become the newest symbol of simmering anger at Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, and over the tough police repression of political dissent and a recent corruption scandal that has entangled the top echelons of the ruling party.

“Here’s a thief! Here’s a murderer!” and “Mothers’ anger will strangle murderers!” funeral marchers screamed as they walked, blowing whistles. “Berkin’s murderer is AKP’s police!”

More than 100,000 people converged in Istanbul to participate in the boy’s funeral procession to a cemetery. The burial itself was peaceful as hundreds of riot police were deployed nearby.

“He was our hope, he was our miracle, he was our son, brother, everything. We were waiting for him to wake up but we unfortunately lost him,” said Damla Atalay, 32, a lawyer, who marched in a convoy behind the coffin. “We are here because this little boy is part of us, it could happen to any of us, to our son, brother.” [Continue reading...]

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