ANKARA, Turkey – Once they were untouchable. Some were members of Turkey's elite military class known as "pashas," a title of respect harking back to Ottoman times. For decades, Turkey's senior officers, self-appointed guardians of the country's secular tradition, called the shots.
But Monday, the balance of power in this EU candidate appeared to have undergone a major shift. Turkish police detained 52 military commanders for allegedly planning to blow up mosques in order to trigger a military takeover and overthrow the Islamic-oriented government.
The detentions showed that the elected government is trying to take the upper hand against the military, which has ousted four governments since 1960 and held influence since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created the secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
With strong electoral backing and support from the European Union, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has curtailed military power and signaled further tough steps to rein in the generals. But Monday's detentions, following the gathering of wiretap evidence and the discovery of secret weapons caches, marks the highest-profile crackdown to date.
Police in simultaneous operations in eight cities detained 21 generals and admirals, including ex-deputy chief Gen. Ergin Saygun, former Air Force chief Gen. Ibrahim Firtina and Navy Chief Adm. Ozden Ornek. The rest were mostly colonels.
They are also accused of conspiring to plan shooting down a Turkish warplane to trigger armed conflict with Greece in a bid to destabilize the Turkish government. The military strongly denies the allegations.
Erdogan declined to comment Monday on the raids, saying they had been carried out on prosecutors' orders. However on Sunday, Erdogan said his government had not given "a chance to those who tried to fly a course for Turkey outside the law."
A spokesman for the main opposition Republican People's Party, expressed concern over the detentions.
"These are grave incidents, severe incidents for society, for the Turkish armed forces," Mustafa Ozyurek said. "Legally, and from a human rights perspective, there must be a speedy trial."
Erdogan denies the ongoing crackdown is politically motivated or designed to silence government critics, as is claimed by opposition parties.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday denounced the 1961 hanging by coup leaders of a prime minister and two of his ministers. But he said that those days are over and that Turkey now was going through a normalization process.
"Things will get better when those who were never accountable for their deeds begin to account for them," Arinc told CNN-Turk television Monday.
Conflict over Turkey's national identity has simmered since Ataturk, an army officer in World War I, founded the republic and abolished the Caliphate. He gave the vote to women, restricted Islamic dress and replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, but Islam remains a potent force.
Since taking power in 2002, Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party has repeatedly denied that it is trying to impose religion on politics and society. However, secularists view its attempts to permit Islamic style head scarves at universities and a past push to criminalize adultery as alarming.
The military's self-declared mission to protect the secular regime has pitted it in a bitter fight with Erdogan's government. His July 2007 re-election with 46.6 percent of the votes buoyed the pragmatic leader to investigate people accused of secret military plots, when the first of a series surfaced in 2008.
So far, prosecutors have jailed more than 400 people, including soldiers, academics, journalists and politicians. No one has yet been convicted.
In 2008, Turkey's top court narrowly voted against disbanding Erdogan's ruling party over accusations it is plotting to impose Islamic rule, but in a warning the judges cut off millions of dollars in state aid to the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara, said that despite the arrests, military influence is not likely to disappear.
"It is not the military that makes itself important, it is the present state of the country," Ozcan told the AP. "As long there is no consolidation of democracy, the military will remain a main power in Turkey."