Turkey Demands U.S. Free Its Soldiers in Iraq

Special to The Times

Ankara on Saturday demanded the immediate release of 11 Turkish soldiers it said were detained by U.S. forces in Iraq, and Turkey’s military brass was reportedly meeting to consider retaliatory steps if Washington failed to comply.

The soldiers were detained Friday in a raid by about 100 U.S. troops on the headquarters of Turkish special forces in the northern Iraqi province of Sulaymaniyah, according to Turkish media reports.

The arrests reportedly were made to stop an alleged plot by the Turks to assassinate the ethnic Kurdish governor of the oil-rich Iraqi province of Kirkuk.


Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul dismissed allegations of a plot as nonsense, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the arrests as “an ugly incident.”

“For an allied country to behave in such a way toward its ally cannot be explained,” Erdogan said.

Late Saturday, Erdogan said some of the soldiers had been released, but Turkish officials said the situation was by no means resolved. U.S. officials in Ankara, the Turkish capital, said they had no “concrete” information about the incident.

A spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the political party governing Sulaymaniyah province, also said he had little knowledge of the raid.

“We were not involved in this business in any way. All we know is that the Americans arrested some Turkish forces,” Bahrooz Galali said. “The Americans run Iraq, not us.”

Gul said Saturday that he had called Secretary of State Colin L. Powell late Friday and that Powell pledged to look into the incident. In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that Powell had spoken with Gul, but she referred all questions on the incident to the Pentagon. A Pentagon spokeswoman referred inquiries to the State Department.


A senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that of the 11 detainees, three were officers, and that none of the troops had been harmed.The official added that the officers were members of a peace-monitoring force set up in 1996 to enforce a cease-fire struck after two years of feuding between the PUK and a rival Iraqi Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The Turkish private news channel NTV reported Saturday that the nation’s military leaders had been in daylong talks to consider an appropriate response to the U.S. move.

Measures under review, the channel said, include closing Turkish airspace to U.S. military overflights and denying use of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for logistical operations related to Iraq.

NTV added that the Turkish general staff would resort to unspecified “military measures” should the U.S. fail to immediately release the Turkish troops, who reportedly were taken to Kirkuk for interrogation.

After the arrests, Turkey sealed the Habur customs gate, the sole border crossing for aid and goods flowing into Iraq through Turkey.

The detentions will probably add to tensions between the U.S. and its longtime North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey, analysts said. In March, a bill that would have enabled U.S. troops to use Turkish soil to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein’s forces failed in the Turkish parliament, straining relations between Washington and Ankara.


“This move may trigger unprecedented hatred toward the Americans among the Turkish people,” said Ali Nihat Ozcan, a security analyst specializing in Kurdish affairs. “It’s hard to imagine how they [the Americans] will be able to repair the damage.”

Some Western diplomats here, however, took a different view. “The Turks were clearly caught with their hands in the cookie jar again,” said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They were not acting in coordination with the Americans. They were up to no good, so they had this coming.”

The diplomat was referring to another incident involving a dozen or so Turkish special forces troops who were deported by U.S. soldiers in April in northern Iraq after being caught trying to pass weapons to a local ethnic Turkish militia known as the Turkmen Front.

Northern Iraq is an ethnically diverse region of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen communities. Turkey has been arming and training the Turkmen Front as a countervailing force against the Kurds and backs the Turkmen’s historical claims over Kirkuk province, where Kurds have reinforced their political influence through the election of a Kurdish governor and mayor after the collapse of Hussein’s government in Baghdad.

Turkey has maintained a military presence in northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- mainly to hunt down separatist Turkish Kurd rebels based in the mountainous region, but also to deter Iraqi Kurds from forming an independent state with control over Kirkuk’s vast oil wealth.

Turkish officials fear that the establishment of a Kurdish state along Turkey’s borders would reignite separatist passions among Turkey’s own 12 million-strong Kurdish minority. But Iraqi Kurds say Turkey no longer has an excuse for keeping its troops in Iraq because the Turkish Kurd rebel group known as the PKK has been largely respecting a cease-fire it declared after Turkey captured its leader in 1999.