- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday warned Turkey against unilateral military operations in northern Iraq as the weekend arrest of 11 Turkish commandos by U.S. forces on suspicions of anti-Kurdish activity strained relations anew between the two NATO allies.

Behind the warning lies a belief by U.S. officials that Turkish troops were preparing to harm civilian Kurdish officials. Turkey denies that and warned that the incident had “created the biggest crisis of confidence” ever between the two armed forces.

Although the Bush administration insisted that Turkey remains a key ally, it made clear it will not tolerate actions in northern Iraq that are not coordinated with the United States.

“Coalition forces are basically responsible for security in that area, and we have arrangements so that any concerns that might arise on the Turkish side can be dealt with,” a State Department spokesman told reporters.

The operation in which the Turkish special forces were suspected of involvement was not only not authorized by the United States, but it also was directed against civilian leaders endorsed by the U.S.-led coalition, administration officials said.

Turkish troops have maintained a presence in parts of northern Iraq since the 1990s to fight Turkey’s own autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels , who have attacked Turkish targets in the past. Ankara fears that an empowered Kurdish minority in Iraq could encourage revolts among the large Kurdish population in southeast Turkey.

Diplomatic sources in the region were quoted by wire reports yesterday as saying that the arrested Turkish soldiers were involved in a plot to kill the interim governor of Kirkuk. The sources also said that among the detained was a Turkish colonel whom U.S. or British forces had expelled from Iraq twice for “suspicious activities.”

A senior State Department official said the United States “had substantial intelligence” that the Turks were participating in “activity involving local leadership.”

While Washington reproached Ankara for undertaking operations without consulting with the U.S. military, Turkey said the United States had not informed it before the arrests about the intelligence concerning the 11 soldiers.

“Turkish forces were blocked from doing their jobs — their equipment was destroyed and some [soldiers] were taken away,” Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of Turkey’s military staff, told reporters in Ankara.

He and other military officials said Iraqi Kurdish fighters accompanied about 100 U.S. forces from the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Friday raid in the town of Sulaymaniyah. The Turkish soldiers, as well as 13 Iraqi civilian staffers and security guards, were released Sunday and returned to their base by helicopter from Baghdad yesterday.

Officials from both countries said a joint committee would investigate the incident. Although a U.S. official declined to say whether the United States had contacted Turkey before the arrests were made, he noted that top U.S. officials had been in touch with the senior Turkish leadership by telephone every day since Friday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Vice President Dick Cheney talked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday and yesterday, spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet quoted Mr. Erdogan as telling Mr. Cheney that “there is serious resentment among the Turkish people” against the United States and “if the detained soldiers are not released, we won’t be able to contain the resentment.”

Gen. Ozkok said the incident touched on “national honor and the honor of the Turkish armed forces.”

Mr. Boucher insisted that Washington’s relationship with Ankara remains “very strong.”

The detention of the 11 soldiers, which provoked such banner headlines in Turkish newspapers as “Rambo Crisis” and “Ugly American,” came four months after Turkey’s parliament rejected a U.S. request to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq.

Government spokesman Cemil Cicek said yesterday that the Turkish military, whose estimated strength in Iraq of between a few thousand and 10,000, has no intention of leaving northern Iraq.

“The reasons why Turkish troops need to be there still exist, therefore, our withdrawal is not on the agenda,” Mr. Cicek told reporters in Ankara.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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