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U.S./Turkey: Ties Hit New Low After Raid On Turkish Forces

Once a model of stability in a chaotic region, Turkish-American relations are going from bad to worse. Over the weekend, ties between the NATO allies hit a new low after U.S. forces in northern Iraq arrested 11 Turkish military officials reportedly suspected of plotting to kill an Iraqi Kurdish leader. Ankara and Washington have since been trying to control the damage, but the wounds could be lasting.

Prague, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After the fallout over the Iraq war, U.S.-Turkish relations were just starting to get back on track when they were dealt another major blow this weekend.

U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Division, reportedly acting on an intelligence tip, on 4 July raided offices housing Turkish special forces and members of Iraq's Turkoman Front political group. The raid took place in the Kurdish-held northern city of Al-Sulaymaniyah.

Eleven members of Turkey's special forces, including a colonel and two majors, were arrested in what appeared to be an attempt to preempt the assassination of an Iraqi Kurdish leader. But that detail, and others, remain unclear.

The 11 Turks, who were taken to Baghdad for interrogation, were released on 6 July, but only after a flurry of telephone diplomacy between Washington and Ankara, where protesters burned U.S. flags in front of the U.S. Embassy.

Stephen Blackwell is an analyst with London's Royal United Services Institute. He said the incident casts a pall over recent efforts to revive U.S.-Turkish relations after the disagreement over the Iraq war. It also poses serious questions about America's future ties with Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member.

"It's a new incident in what is turning out to be a catalog of, well, we could say 'unfortunate events' in American-Turkish relations," Blackwell said.

Officials in Ankara have expressed outrage over the incident, and protested the arrests by withdrawing two liaison officers from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Washington and Ankara have agreed to set up a joint commission to investigate the arrests, but only after intense diplomacy on 5 July that included a half-hour telephone call between U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Ankara's armed forces have traditionally enjoyed close ties with Washington. But Turkey's Chief of General Staff Hilmi Ozkok said on 7 July that the incident has "turned into a major crisis of trust between the Turkish and U.S. armed forces."

Another top Turkish general, Hursit Tolon, called it "disgusting" that one NATO member could arrest soldiers from another member and not even provide advance explanation for its actions.

Meanwhile, Turkish media have helped fuel public outrage, carrying unsubstantiated reports that U.S. forces handcuffed and hooded the Turkish soldiers, as they do with suspected terrorists.

Seyfi Tashan is with the Foreign Policy Institute of Ankara's Bilkent University. Asked to portray the general view in Turkey of the incident, Tashan told RFE/RL: "It's considered as a bullying tactic by some press members and there is even a suggestion that Turkey should withdraw all its troops from Iraq territory. So I think this is another blow to Turkish-American relations."

U.S. officials, speaking off the record, have said U.S. soldiers were acting on an intelligence tip that the Turkish special forces were plotting to assassinate the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurdish governor of the province of Kirkuk, a key oil-rich northern city.

But officials in Turkey -- which since 1990 has sent small forces to northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish guerrillas -- vehemently deny that charge.

Tashan said many in Turkey suspect that the Americans may have been victims of a setup by Iraqi Kurds unhappy with the continued presence of Turkish forces. "Nobody believes that Turkish troops can be involved in such a plot [at all]," Tashan said. "So they don't believe it. They think it's a fabrication and that it has been done deliberately by some circles in northern Iraq."

An unidentified U.S. Defense Department official suggested in "The New York Times" that U.S. troops did not know there were Turkish forces in the complex they raided in Al-Sulaymaniyah. The official did not say whom they were expecting to find in the complex.

Washington is already under fire for the quality of its prewar intelligence on Baghdad's alleged weapons of mass destruction, its main justification for invading Iraq. No such weapons have yet been found.

But Blackwell of the Royal United Services Institute said it's far too early to say the U.S. raid was prompted by shoddy intelligence from a third party with its own agenda. He urged caution when dealing with what he called "the Turkish media's rumor mill."

And though U.S. officials recently complained about Turkish forces in northern Iraq, Blackwell does not believe the raid represents a new tack for U.S. policy. "At the moment it looks like this is an isolated incident and it's produced an isolated response. But there's no indication at the moment to show that this is part of a policy shift or a move by the U.S. military to reduce Turkish influence, reduce the activities of Turkish special forces," he said.

Still, there are reports that the U.S. and Turkey have clashed over Ankara's alleged military training and weapons supplying for the Turkoman Front. An unidentified senior Iraqi Kurdish leader told the "Los Angeles Times" that Turkey wants the ethnic Turkish group to take action against local Kurdish leaders.

Along with the 11 Turks, U.S. forces also reportedly detained another 13 people. Their identities remain unclear, but reports say they were Iraqis, or possibly Turkomans.