ANKARA, Turkey — The struggle between the secular Turkish military and the Islamic-oriented government reached new heights Wednesday as a court jailed 12 senior officers – including five admirals, an army general and six other officers.
The officers are charged with plotting several years ago to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, news reports said Wednesday. More officers could be charged later this week.
Former chiefs of Air Force, Navy and Special Forces were also among about 50 officers detained by police in a sweep Monday.
Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but officially secular country, is witnessing an unprecedented showdown between the country's rising political Islamic movement and its fiercely secular founders, the military officers.
Business groups say the fight is damaging the country's financial prospects and its reputation abroad. It also jolted already jittery markets: the country's benchmark stock market index fell more than 3 percent Wednesday.
Economy Minister Ali Babacan attempted to ease concerns, saying the government was trying to put the military under civilian rule as in the West.
"Transformations may sometimes be painful," Babacan told a conference of foreign investors in Istanbul. "We are trying to make Turkey's democracy first class."
Gen. Ilker Basbug, the military chief, is scheduled to meet Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul at the presidential palace Thursday.
Four times since 1960, the military, which views itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular tradition, has overthrown civilian governments. But observers say this government's success in reining in inflation, coupled with its reformist record as it works to join the European Union, appears to have given it the courage to take the military on.
Many in the military accuse the government of nurturing fundamentalism. Taraf newspaper this week reported that sentries at a military unit were ordered to use the code: "Vile" and password: "Prime Minister" an apparent reflection of the tensions.
Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek visited military headquarters Tuesday night to discuss the report. The military said it had launched an investigation.
The struggle is bitter and the way forward is not clear.
"The way to emerge from this crisis and conflict is to go to the polls," said Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Action Party. For now, general elections are scheduled for 2011.
The government crackdown has angered opposition parties and could deprive Erdogan of their support in overhauling the Constitution – a legacy of a 1980 military coup – to expand free speech and individual rights in Turkey.
The current tensions have damaged the government's search for a wide consensus on the matter.
"The government has lost the momentum for the Constitution amendment," said Rusen Cakir, a political analyst for the NTV and CNBCE televisions. "I think grounds for an early election have materialized."
An influential pro-European Union business group warned that the tensions were undermining Turkey's prospects for the future.
"We see a problem of discourse in politics here, which resonates in international circles as a struggle between powers, leading to hesitations about Turkey's future," Umit Boyner, head of the Turkish Industrialists and Business Association, said after meeting with the president. "There is urgent need to resume the real agenda by eliminating this tense atmosphere."
Despite criticism, the military is still venerated in Turkey. But members of the ruling party sounded resolute.
"No one will be able to prevent Turkey's development," said Salih Kapusuz, a prominent lawmaker of Erdogan's party on Wednesday. "No one, neither politicians nor soldiers ... are above the law."
Associated Press Writer Ceren Kumova in Ankara contributed to this report.