U.S. military releases Turks to northern Iraq

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey -- The U.S. military released 11 Turkish soldiers after detaining them in Iraq for more than two days, straining ties between the two NATO allies and sparking anger from Turkey's top generals.

U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne took the 11 Turkish special forces troops along with 13 Iraqi civilian staff and security guards into custody Friday in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah over an alleged plot to harm Iraqi Kurdish civilian officials in the north. Turkey has denied any such plot.

The Turkish soldiers were released late Sunday after intense diplomacy between Ankara and Washington.

The detentions sparked public outrage, with several anti-American demonstrations.

Turkish and U.S. officials agreed to launch a joint inquiry and were scheduled to meet in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, today.

The detentions came as the two allies' interests in Iraq are increasingly diverging.

With the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, U.S. authorities are working closely with Iraqi Kurds to shape Iraq's future. Turkey, on the other hand, is deeply concerned by the Kurds' growing influence in Iraq, a development it fears could encourage Kurdish separatists on its own soil.

The two countries have been close allies for more than five decades, but relations soured when Turkey in March barred some 60,000 U.S. troops from using Turkey as a staging point for an Iraq invasion.

The detentions came as the Turkish government was trying to mend ties.

"Relations with the United States are not improving, on the contrary they are worsening," wrote Tufan Turenc, a commentator for Hurriyet newspaper. "It is clear that the hawks (in Washington) do not care about the alliance anymore."

Turkey has long maintained thousands of troops in parts of northern Iraq to fight autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels who have launched attacks on Turkish targets from bases in northern Iraq.

Turkey fears that increasing Kurdish power in northern Iraq could encourage Kurdish rebels to revive fighting in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. Turkey sent military observers to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion to keep tabs on the Kurds and protect the interests of the Iraqi Turkmen minority, who have ethnic ties to the Turks.

"The incident has unfortunately, created the biggest crisis of confidence between the Turkish and U.S. armed forces," Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the chief of military staff, told reporters. U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson, who was paying a farewell visit, sat beside him.

"We place great importance on Turkish-American relations but our national pride and the honor of the Turkish armed forces is also of great importance," Ozkok said.

A senior Turkish commander, Gen. Hursit Tolon, who described the incident as "disgusting," said the detentions were part of a wider U.S. effort to oust the Turkish military from the region.

"It is no secret that the United States does not want Turkish troops in Iraq," said Mustafa Kibaroglu of Ankara's Bilkent University.

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