Turkey issues statement of regret over detention of soldiers

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey released a statement Tuesday saying it and the United States regretted the capture of 11 Turkish special forces soldiers in northern Iraq in early July. But a U.S. official said Washington still had not approved the document.

A U.S.-Turkish committee had been set up last week to investigate the surprise July 4 raid, when U.S. troops detained the Turkish soldiers in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah.

The Turks offered the Americans tea, in line with Turkish traditions, but the U.S. soldiers took the Turks prisoners, handcuffed them, hooded them and flew them to Baghdad for interrogation. They were released more than two days later.

The capture was the latest setback to Turkish-U.S. relations, already strained since March, when Turkey rejected a U.S. request to host 60,000 U.S. troops for the war in Iraq. Many Turks were outraged by the detention and said the soldiers were humiliated. The incident fueled anti-American sentiment in this once-close U.S. ally.

It wasn't clear why the Turkish side released the statement before Washington's approval. It seemed another example of lack of coordination between the two staunch 50-year old allies which also apparently triggered the spat over the detentions.

A U.S. embassy official said that the statement was released prematurely and that the embassy was waiting for approval from Washington.

"We had informed the Turkish side that we needed to get approval for this document from Washington and we did not get it yet," a U.S. embassy official said on condition of anonymity. "The document is still being considered in Washington."

The statement said both sides "expressed sorrow about the incident between the two allies and the treatment Turkish soldiers went through under detention."

It said they "agreed to take additional measures in order to improve cooperation and coordination."

"Both sides agreed on speedily sharing every kind of information ... concerning regional security and stability before taking any action," it said.

The statement was released by the Turkish Chief of Staff's office on behalf of the Turkish-American Joint Research Group, which is led by Turkish and U.S. generals.

"The conclusion that has emerged is this: a huge mistake was made," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said of the incident.

He said Turkish and U.S. officials had agreed to establish more committees to prevent future spats between the two countries and cooperate in Iraq's reconstruction.

"(The) committees will work to make Turkish-U.S. relation healthier and to make Turkey's contributions to Iraq's reconstruction more meaningful," Gul said, without elaborating.

Gen. John Abizaid, who succeeds Gen. Tommy Franks as the U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to visit Turkey later in the week, Turkish officials have said.

U.S. officials alleged the Turkish special forces were planning to assassinate an Iraqi Kurdish official, but the U.S. military failed to submit any convincing evidence. Turkey denied any such plot.

The incident underlined the two countries' conflicting strategic interests in Iraq. Turkey is concerned by Iraqi Kurds' growing influence there, but Washington has been working closely with Kurdish groups.

Turkey has long maintained a military presence in northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy from Turkey and have taken up bases in northern Iraq. Turkish special forces, meanwhile, have worked together with Turkish minority Turkomans to counterbalance the growing Iraqi Kurdish influence.

Turkey, which fought a 15 year war against Kurdish separatists of its own, fears that self-ruling Kurds in northern Iraq could fuel new clashes within Turkey.