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Head of Turkey's Ruling Party Wins By-Election

The head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, easily won a parliamentary seat in a by-election in the southeastern province of Siirt Sunday, clearing the way for him to become prime minister. In the southeastern city Diyarbakir, the ruling party took all three seats being contested in Siirt.

Mr. Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, was banned from politics, stripped of his mayoral seat and barred from running in last November's parliamentary elections, because of his conviction for inciting religious hatred in 1996.

But his Justice and Development Party, which he formed last year, catapulted to power on its own in the November 3 elections, winning some 35 percent of the vote. With a clear majority in the Parliament, the party was able to push through a series of constitutional reforms that eliminated legal obstacles to Mr. Erdogan's premiership.

Mr. Erdogan, a former football player who began his political career in an overtly pro-Islamic party, has thrived on adversity.

Under Turkish law, only elected members of Parliament qualify for the premiership, so his deputy, Abdullah Gul, became prime minister after the November elections. He is now expected to step aside in favor of Mr. Erdogan, who could be sworn in as the new prime minister sometime this week.

Despite Mr. Erdogan's firm backing for a bill that would have allowed U.S. forces to use Turkey as a base for a possible war against Iraq, about 100 deputies from his ruling party voted against the bill, throwing U.S.-Turkish relations into disarray.

Hopes of a second vote were pinned on Mr. Erdogan's ascension to the premiership, and grew after Turkey's influential army chief, General Hilmi Ozkok, last week publicly endorsed the deployment of U.S. forces, saying it would accelerate a U.S. victory in a possible war against Iraq and minimize casualties.

But escalating tensions between Turkey and the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions have complicated U.S. military planning for establishing a northern front against Iraqi forces from Turkey, with the Iraqi Kurds threatening to fight back, should tens of thousands of Turkish forces enter their enclave.