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Scandal imperils Turkish prime minister

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

ANKARA, Turkey — After a decade of dominance over Turkey's political scene, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have been thrown off balance by a rapidly expanding corruption scandal that has brought down members of his cabinet and strained ties to the United States.

Forced to fire three of his ministers — one of whom immediately implicated the prime minister in the scandal — and struggling to contain the scope of the investigation, Erdogan seems unlikely to come out of the crisis unscathed.

But many observers say it is too early to write off the savvy politician who has weathered a series of crises since his Islamic-based party acquired power in 2002.

“If the allegations are true, this would without doubt be the deepest crisis the government has faced,” said Murat Yetkin, editor in chief and political commentator for the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper.

In comments published on Thursday, Erdogan said he believes he is the ultimate target of the probe but declared that those trying to enmesh him in the scandal will be left empty-handed.

Erdogan, 59, was long hailed as a transformational leader who achieved power on a promise to crack down on corruption and carried out spectacular economic and political reforms. He turned Turkey into a relatively stable and prosperous country, curtailing the powers of the military and raising the nation's international profile.

More recently, though, critics say he has cut a more authoritarian and erratic figure, often reverting to conspiracy theories to deal with crises. Those tactics have damaged his image as an international statesman.

He has blamed the scandal on a rival Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gulen — a cleric who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States and whose followers are widely believed to have a strong foothold in Turkey's police and judiciary. Gulen has denied any involvement.

Erdogan also has suggested the United States is behind the investigation, prompting American officials to warn the government not to endanger ties between the close NATO allies with unfounded allegations.

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