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An angry public debate is under way in Turkey over the conduct of last month's military incursion against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq. Turkish nationalists accuse the military of prematurely ending the offensive under pressure from the United States, some Turks are criticizing the operation altogether - among them a singer who is better known for her sex-change operation than her politics.

From Istanbul, NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON: Bulent Ersoy is no stranger to controversy. The artist was banned from performing on stage by Turkey's military dictatorship after she underwent a sex-change operation in 1981. Years later, an elected civilian government officially recognized Ersoy as a woman and allowed her to resume her career as a singer of Turkish classical music.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: More recently, the transsexual diva became fodder for the local tabloids when she married and then divorced a much younger man who was a contestant on the Turkish version of "American Idol." Ersoy appears as a judge on that program and it was on that show last month — at the height of the Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq — that Ersoy suddenly became the country's most vocal war critic.

Ms. BULENT ERSOY (Turkish singer): (Speaks Turkish)

WATSON: Seated in front of a giant digital Turkish flag and dressed in a frilly white gown, the raven-haired singer challenged the Turkish army operation.

Ms. ERSOY: (Through translator) This is not a normal war. I am not a mother. But if I could give birth, I wouldn't sacrifice my child for this conflict.

WATSON: Angry calls flooded the state broadcasting watchdog after the show. The government agency rebuked the TV station, and a prosecutor has since launched an investigation to determine whether Ersoy insulted the military, which is considered a criminal offense in Turkey. Some Turks, however, are quietly applauding.

Mr. MEHMET ALI BIRAND (Veteran TV News Anchor): People got very angry with her, but in essence, she was right. She was spelling out the gossip around the kitchen table over a normal Turkish family.

WATSON: Mehmet Ali Birand is a veteran TV news anchor. He says Ersoy voiced doubts that many Turks won't dare say in public.

Mr. BIRAND: She was saying, instead of organizing a military operation, get down to the table and solve the problem politically as well.

WATSON: Turks are fiercely patriotic, they are also passionate about music. At the CD shops that line Istanbul's busy Istiklal Street, people were divided over the outburst from one of their most beloved singers.

Mr. HASSAN PEKER (Turkish Conscript): (Speaks Turkish)

WATSON: She's wrong. You're not a man in Turkey until you do your mandatory military service says this 24-year-old conscript named Hassan Peker. He says he petitioned to be sent to the front lines during the Iraq incursion. Next door, music store owner Songul Tanrikulu, who is a Kurd, called Ersoy a brave woman.

Ms. SONGUL TANRIKULU (Music Store Owner): (Through translator) It shows the sensitivity of a mother, saying that, you know, she would not send her child to war, and I think it's really incredible.

WATSON: Hugh Pope, an expert on Turkey with the International Crisis Group, says the diva's televised outburst is a sign of the democratic progress this country has made in the last 20 years.

Mr. HUGH POPE (Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group): She touches accord with the Turkish people and that she should take a very emotional political stand, and that she feels free to express it on a major television station is, I think, a very hopeful sign that Turkey can start grappling with the underlying issues of the Kurdish conflict and not just the military ones.

WATSON: Turkey withdrew its soldiers from northern Iraq on February 29th. Meanwhile Ersoy is standing by her remarks. At a press conference she said she did her artistic duty by confronting a taboo and added that if the state presses charges, she will defend herself in court.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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