* In rare written commentary, cleric warns Erdogan
* Feud with Gulen one of Erdogan's biggest challenges
* Cleric hints he has no intention of returning to Turkey
By Humeyra Pamuk
ANKARA, March 11 A U.S.-based cleric locked in a
feud with the Turkish government has likened Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan's grip on power to that of the once-dominant
military, and warned that political and economic reforms of the
past decade are under threat.
In a rare written political commentary, Pennsylvania-based
preacher Fethullah Gulen said Erdogan had lost trust at home and
abroad because of measures such as curbs on Internet freedom,
greater government control of the courts and stronger powers for
the intelligence agency.
"A small group within the government's executive branch is
holding to ransom the entire country's progress," Gulen, members
of whose Hizmet (Service) movement say they number in the
millions, wrote in the article published in the Financial Times
late on Monday.
"The dominance in politics that was once enjoyed by the
military now appears to have been replaced by a hegemony of the
executive," he said.
Gulen's support helped cement the rise of Erdogan's
Islamist-rooted AK Party over the past decade but a deepening
divide between the two former allies spilled into the open in
December with an inquiry into alleged government corruption.
The feud poses one of the biggest challenges of Erdogan's
11-year rule. Three government ministers have resigned, and
leaked wiretaps of conversations purportedly of Erdogan and
those close to him have appeared on social media on an almost
Erdogan has slammed the illegal tapping of what should have
been encrypted telephone conversations and has described some of
the leaked recordings as "fabricated montage".
He portrays the scandal as orchestrated by the cleric
through his influence in the police and judiciary, an attempt to
smear the ruling party and unseat him ahead of an election cycle
starting this month. Gulen denies unleashing the inquiry.
The prime minister has responded by purging thousands of
police officers and reassigning hundreds of judges, as well as
tightening Internet controls in what his critics see as an
authoritarian effort to stem the flow of leaks.
In a veiled reference to Gulen, Erdogan has accused a
"parallel state" within the police and judiciary of illegally
wiretapping thousands of phones, including his own and those of
close aides and government ministers, for several years.
NO RETURN PLANNED
Gulen said Hizmet members, who have cast themselves as the
victims of a witch hunt by Erdogan's government, had "no
interest in the privileges of power", and that seeking power in
the name of religion would contradict the spirit of Islam.
"The Turkish state has long discriminated against citizens
and public servants on the basis of their views," he wrote.
"A dark shadow has been cast over achievements of the past
decade - the result of insidious profiling of certain groups of
Turkish citizens for their views, constant shuffling of civil
servants for political convenience, and an unprecedented
subjugation of the media, the judiciary and civil society."
Turkish officials have said the reassignments in the police
and judiciary and greater government say over the appointment of
judges and prosecutors are part of an effort to flush out the
influence of Gulen's movement, which they see as an
undemocratic, unaccountable force.
Gulen said the government could restore trust only by
"renewing its commitment to universal human rights, the rule of
law and accountable governance" and said a new constitution
drafted by civilians should lie at the heart of this.
Turks have questioned whether Gulen might explicitly come
out and suggest his followers vote against Erdogan's AK Party in
municipal elections in March or against the prime minister
himself, should he stand for president in an August vote.
The cleric ruled out such a move, or any imminent return to
Turkey from Pennsylvania, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
"I have never endorsed or opposed a political party or
candidate, and will refrain from doing so in future ... I have
spent the past 15 years in spiritual retreat and, irrespective
of what happens in Turkey, I intend to continue to do so."
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mohammad Zargham)