* Erdogan blames cleric for orchestrating graft scandal
* Gulen says backlash worse than during military coups
* Feud destabilising Turkey in run-up to elections
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, March 17 Islamic cleric Fethullah
Gulen said a crackdown on his followers by Turkish Prime
Minister Tayyip Erdogan was "ten times worse" than anything
meted out after coups by the secularist military.
Erdogan has accused Gulen's Hizmet ("Service") network,
which has built quiet influence in the police and judiciary over
decades, of orchestrating a graft investigation which has grown
into one of the biggest challenges of his 11-year rule.
He has responded by tightening government control of the
courts and reassigning thousands of police officers and hundreds
of prosecutors and judges, in what his aides say is a drive to
cleanse the judiciary of Gulen's influence.
In his first major interview in Turkish media since the
graft scandal burst into the open in December, the U.S.-based
cleric, whose worldwide network of followers say they number in
the millions, said he was the victim of a campaign of slander.
"In the wake of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, the
authorities tracked me for six years as if I were a criminal.
Raids were carried out. Our friends were harassed. In a sense,
it became a sort of lifestyle for us to live under constant
surveillance in a coup atmosphere," he said.
"What we are seeing today is 10 times worse than what we saw
during the military coups," he was quoted as saying in an
interview with the Zaman newspaper and its English-language
edition, both close to his movement. (www.todayszaman.com)
Turkey's army, self-appointed guardians of secularism,
toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century
before Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party brought a decade of
economic and political stability. Rights groups accused the
generals of torture and killings after coups in 1960 and 1980.
Gulen's network helped cement the AK Party's rise, using its
influence in the judiciary to help break the army's grip with a
series of coup plot trials; but the marriage of convenience has
fallen apart as the former allies turn on each other.
"This time, we face similar treatment but at the hands of
civilians who we think follow the same faith as us," Gulen said.
"I should acknowledge that this inflicts extra pain on us. All
we can do is say 'This, too, shall pass,' and remain patient."
"PEAK OF ALL TROUBLES"
The feud threatens to undermine Turkey's stability in the
run-up to municipal elections on March 30, the first test of
Erdogan's popularity at the ballot box since nationwide protests
last summer and since the graft scandal erupted.
Opinion polls suggest Erdogan has retained his popularity
despite the graft scandal and power struggle with Gulen, drawing
on the country's strong economic growth under his rule.
Erdogan will be looking to match or exceed the AKP vote of
39 percent in comparable municipal elections five years ago,
helped in part by the continued weakness of political opponents.
This month's polls are followed by a presidential race five
months later in which Erdogan had long been expected to stand,
although his party could also change its internal rules to let
him serve a fourth term as prime minister, casting his strong
leadership as needed to finish off the feud with Gulen.
Erdogan has slammed those behind the graft scandal as
"leeches", decrying what appears to have been the wiretapping
over years of thousands of phones including his own by a
"parallel state" bent on using blackmail to wield influence.
"The parallel state situation, I can say, is a peak in terms
of organising a plot, the peak of all troubles," he told
Turkey's Kanal 7 TV in an interview late on Sunday, describing
it as worse than an attempt in the courts in 2008 to close the
AK Party on charges of seeking to introduce Islamic rule.
"What really troubles us is this: legal or illegal how come
the prime minister of a country is wiretapped. A court verdict
to wiretap the prime minister is out of the question, you can't
do this ... not for the president, not for the chief of staff.
These (people) have become so low, so small," he said.
In his latest headache as he campaigns around the country
for the local elections, a Twitter account behind a string of
leaks in the scandal posted on Thursday what it presented as
prosecution files accusing four former government ministers of
involvement in bribery and smuggling.
Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the documents.
A summary of a report outlining details of an alleged
bribery network involving the ministers is due to be read in an
extraordinary session of parliament on Wednesday, after the
opposition demanded the assembly be recalled from a recess.
But Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Monday a
parliamentary commission would need to be formed before the full
documents could be viewed by commission members, a process only
likely to get underway after the March 30 elections.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Ankara; Writing by