Ankara - About 40 000 flag-waving secular Turks on Saturday denounced the Islamic-rooted government over its plans to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves in universities - a move the foreign minister said would expand Turkish freedoms.

The government has defended its plan as a reform needed to bring Turkey in line with European Union human rights guidelines, but many including the country's influential military establishment see the move as a serious threat to the country's secular traditions.

"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the crowd chanted as they marched to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey and the symbol of its secular identity.

A parliamentary commission on Friday approved a legal amendment under which female students would be allowed to wear head scarves at universities as long as they tie them under the chin, leaving their faces more exposed. However, the nuance was unlikely to win over many opponents who regard the head scarves as political statements.

Many fear the government is raising the profile of Islam in this secular country and rolling back gains of the secular republic against Islamic rule during the times of the Ottoman Empire.

"I am furious over attempts to cover the republic itself," Sevgi Ozel, an author, told NTV television.

Senal Saruhan, head of the Association of Republican Women which organized the demonstration, accused the government of "exploiting religion."

"The government should listen to the voice of this crowd," Saruhan said. Police estimated the number of the protesters less than 40 000. Members of over 50 non-governmental organizations and some secular political parties who traveled to Ankara from across the country attended the rally.

Sedef Demirel, a protester, said she came to "defend the republic and the country's secular traditions."

Before the protest, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said debates on the issue were "weakening Turkey's image abroad." The government says the measure is aimed at ensuring liberties at universities, and that it intends to uphold secular principles enshrined in the constitution.

"Turkey is a country which must record progress in the field of rights and freedoms, Turkey has to carry out political reforms to clinch EU membership," Babacan told reporters before flying to Saudi Arabia. "It is our government's main criteria to make people fully enjoy freedoms in Turkey in every field."

Turkey aspires to become the first Muslim member of the European Union, and has long touted itself as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoys some support in Europe and the United States, where backers hold up Turkey as proof that devout Islam and democracy can be compatible.

But many opponents at home are suspicious. Erdogan had tried to criminalize adultery before being forced to back down under intense pressure from the EU.

Starting in 1923 in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk, a soldier, set about on a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. The head scarf ban was enforced after a military coup in 1980.

Deans of several state and private universities on Friday warned the government against approving the measure, after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party struck a deal with the Nationalist Action Party to allow women wearing head scarves on campuses. A vote in Parliament could come as early as next week.

On Saturday, protesters also condemned Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party for forming an alliance with Erdogan.

The secular Republican People's Party strongly opposed the measure, but they lack seats to prevent the measure from being approved on the floor. However, it said it would ask the Constitutional Court to cancel the legal amendment later.

Turkey's debate over wearing headscarves grew out of tension between the Islamic-oriented government and the military-backed, secular establishment, which faced off in a struggle for political power last year. The conflict ebbed after the government scored a resounding victory in general elections and its presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, won election on his second attempt.

The fiercely pro-secular military retains influence over politics. It staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and pressured a pro-Islamic premier - Erdogan's mentor - out of power in 1997.

The military said on Wednesday its views on the head scarf issue were well known; it strongly opposes the wearing of Islamic head scarves in universities and public offices.

"We want to lift all ridiculous bans in Turkey; we want everyone to freely walk and receive education, either with their miniskirts or head scarves," said Egemen Bagis, a close aide to Erdogan.

But many secular women fear that allowing head scarves in universities will lead eventually to their being pressured to cover their bodies as well. - Sapa-AP