- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2016

Turkish-trained militiamen have begun operations northwest of the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Mosul, as Baghdad and Ankara reportedly inch closer to a deal allowing a larger role for Turkish forces in the fight.

The militiamen, who had been confined within Turkey’s main Iraqi base in Bashiqa, are carrying out “reinforcement operations” near Mosul Dam north of the city, a U.S. official told The Washington Times.

The official declined to comment on the specifics of the operations, but said only a small contingent of militiamen was located near Mosul Dam. It marks the first time those Turkish-trained paramilitary forces have taken an active role on the ground near Iraq’s second-largest city.

A high-level Turkish diplomatic source who later spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that Turkish-trained militias are taking part in the fight to retake Mosul, although he did not say when the militias had been deployed.

Turkish forces have trained upward of 3,000 Sunni militia fighters at their main outpost in Bashiqa, roughly 10 miles east of Mosul, which has been a repeated target of Islamic State attacks in the run-up to the Mosul offensive.

“It was a very sensitive camp we were using to train these fighters,” the diplomatic source said.

News of the militia’s activities north of Mosul, which has been under Islamic State control for the last two years, comes amid reports of U.S.-led efforts to carve out a larger role for Turkish forces in the fight.

During a recent trip to the region, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reportedly proffered terms to Ankara and Baghdad to allow Turkish forces on the ground as part of the U.S.-backed coalition.

The dual proposals include allowing Turkish forces to provide medical and humanitarian support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces closing in on the city, or allow Turkish-trained Sunni militias to take part in the campaign to retake the city, The New York Times reported Monday.

A senior U.S. defense official could not confirm whether the two proposals were part of Mr. Carter’s discussions with Turkish and Iraqi military officials. But the official noted that Mr. Carter discussed the possibility of allowing Turkish fighters to conduct airstrikes in Iraq as part of the Mosul campaign.

“They did talk about getting Turkey on the [Air Tasking Order] for airstrikes,” the official said, referring to the list of coalition aircraft authorized to launch strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq.

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, on an unrelated visit to Washington this week, told reporters at the Turkish Embassy that Turkey’s military had rendered more than 700 Islamic State fighters “ineffective” near the northern Iraqi city.

The diplomatic source said the Islamic State casualties resulted from artillery strikes launched against targets in and around Mosul from the Turkish training camp in Bashiqa.

In July, The Times observed Turkish artillery firing at Islamic State targets on the eastern edge of Mosul, just outside Kurdish peshmerga lines near Bashiqa.

There is a sense of willingness from Baghdad and Ankara to come to an agreement that will grant Turkey a role in the fight for Mosul and possibly beyond, the U.S. defense official said.

Mr. Carter, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, have been “working to facilitate” a deal to appease Turkey’s desire to gain a role in the Mosul campaign, while maintaining the American-backed Iraqi coalition, the official said.

Despite such developments, White House press secretary Josh Earnest expressed doubt over a Turkish military role in Iraq.

“I think it can be an ongoing discussion [but] I don’t know if we’ll get to a place where there is a role that materializes for Turkish troops to support Iraqi security forces,” he told reporters Thursday.

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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