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U.S./Turkey: Relations Still Racked By Mutual Distrust Despite Attempts To Mend Fences

U.S. and Turkish officials have expressed regret over the recent detention of Turkish soldiers by U.S. troops in northern Iraq. But neither side has officially apologized for the incident, and mutual distrust continues to simmer between the two NATO allies.

Prague, 17 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly two weeks since U.S. forces in northern Iraq briefly detained a group of Turkish soldiers, setting off a flurry of accusations and diplomatic activity between Washington and Ankara. But despite efforts on both sides to mend fences, relations between the NATO allies remain chilly.

On 15 July, Turkey's General Staff issued what was presented as a joint statement expressing regret over both the dispute and the "treatment Turkish soldiers faced in detention." The statement was not released in full, but only partially quoted by local media.

Although the Turkish initiative was presented as an attempt to patch up strained bilateral ties, the U.S. State Department reacted coolly and blamed Ankara for breaching an earlier agreement that no joint statement would be made public without Washington's notice.

In a subsequent effort to downplay the incident, however, Washington said the early release was merely the result of "lack of coordination" and eventually endorsed the statement. U.S. State Department Richard Boucher yesterday read out the joint communique at a regular press briefing.

"The U.S. noted Turkish concerns about American treatment of Turkish military personnel during the unfortunate incident. The Turkish side noted U.S. concerns about reported activities of Turkish personnel in northern Iraq. Both sides expressed regret that this incident occurred," Boucher said.

The statement was drafted after a joint military commission investigated the 4 July incident, in which U.S. troops arrested 11 members of Turkey's special forces in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. The detainees were brought to Baghdad for questioning and released after 60 hours.

This was at least the second such incident since the U.S.-led coalition launched its military campaign in Iraq. Three months ago (22 April), U.S. troops arrested a group of Turkish soldiers clad in civilian clothes who were escorting a cargo of weapons hidden in an aid convoy bound for Kirkuk. Both sides at the time agreed to hush up the incident.

Washington has provided no evidence to substantiate its claim that the 11 officers and noncommissioned officers arrested last week were plotting against the Kurdish administration of Kirkuk. Ankara has persistently denied the accusations.

Addressing lawmakers of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on 15 July, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul described the detention of the Turkish soldiers as a "sad incident which should have never occurred between two allies."

"From our conclusions, it appears that a serious blunder was made," he said. "What has been debated [with the U.S. side] was a big mistake and, to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, we've decided to set up some committees."

The Al-Sulaymaniyah incident triggered a firestorm in Turkey, with both the government and the opposition slamming the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for his "unfriendly" treatment of a strategic regional ally.

Turkish media and politicians from both the left and right also criticized U.S. troops for handcuffing their prisoners and putting bags on their heads "as if they were Al-Qaeda terrorists." The heavy-handed treatment of Turkish soldiers was generally seen as humiliating in a country where the army is considered one of the pillars of society.

Following the release of the joint U.S.-Turkish statement, the leader of Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) expressed regret that Washington had stopped short of formally apologizing for "wounding the honor of Turkey and its armed forces." Deniz Baykal also noted that neither side had offered any explanation for the detention and questioning of Turkish officers.

Pressed by reporters yesterday to comment on the absence of a U.S. apology, U.S. State Department spokesman Boucher was sparing in his response. "The joint statement expressed the joint conclusions, the joint sentiments, the joint feelings, the joint thoughts, and the joint appraisal of the situation, so I will stick exactly to that," he said. "That expresses everything there is to say about it at this point."

For Turkey and its powerful military, the incident is a bitter pill to swallow. In a bid to lessen the sting, Gul yesterday said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had sent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a letter in which he reportedly expressed his respect for the Turkish military.

"It is, actually, an important letter," Gul said. "It expresses both the strategic importance of Turkish-U.S. relations and the respect felt for the Turkish armed forces. In addition, [Rumsfeld] expresses his regrets over the [4 July] incident."

Gul is due in Washington on 24 July to meet U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials for talks on cooperation in Iraq.

Sources in both Ankara and Washington have said that the newly appointed head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, is tentatively scheduled to visit Turkey later this week ahead of a regional tour of the Persian Gulf area.

But beyond such conciliatory diplomacy, the war in Iraq has left a negative, and arguably durable, imprint on bilateral relations.

Ties between the two countries have been strained since early March, when the Turkish Grand National Assembly failed to approve a government motion authorizing the deployment of some 60,000 U.S. soldiers for military action against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Denied access to Turkish territory, the Pentagon was forced to drop its plans to invade Iraq from the north, and instead redeployed its troops in Kuwait.

The end of the war has failed to alleviate the resentment between the two sides. The U.S. suspects Ankara of seeking to maintain influence in northern Iraq by using its small Turkic minority to stir up unrest in the predominantly Kurdish region. Turkey in turn fears the growing influence of Iraqi Kurds and that their privileged relationship with the U.S. might prompt its own Kurdish rebels to break a four-year-old cease-fire accord and resume their struggle for autonomy.

Despite Ankara's expectations, U.S. forces in Iraq have allowed Kurdish fighters to enter the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Since then, Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces have seen an upsurge of violence.

Only last week, members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) killed four villagers near the southeastern city of Bingol. In a separate incident, PKK fighters ambushed a convoy carrying the governor of Tunceli Province and killed two Turkish soldiers.

War with the PKK -- which last year changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) -- has claimed an estimated 35,000 lives between 1984 and 1999. After being driven out of Turkey, PKK militants have spread across the region, settling in northern Iraq, Syria, and Iranian Kurdistan.

Turkey has traditionally maintained hundreds of troops in northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatists. Ankara now claims the U.S. has been in touch with the PKK since the lead-up to the war against Iraq and is now unwilling to crack down on the Marxist group although it officially considers it a terrorist organization.

Commenting on the 4 July arrest, Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok said relations between his country and Washington were facing an unprecedented crisis. "From the very beginning, efforts have been made, both on the government and military levels -- especially between my American colleagues and myself -- to quickly resolve this incident. However, this event has, unfortunately, turned into the most serious crisis of confidence ever between Turkish and U.S. armed forces, and into a [real] crisis," he said.

But unlike Ozkok, most Turkish commentators believe the Al-Sulaymaniyah incident was simply the last straw and the natural result of U.S.-Turkish relations that had already turned sour as a result of the Iraq war.

"In the past, if a fight had broken out between [Iraqi] Kurds and Turkey, U.S. officials would have clearly stated their preference for Turkey. But now [these same officials] say it may no longer be the case," "Turkish Daily News" Editor in Chief Ilnur Cevik wrote yesterday.

Yet, if America's perception of Turkey has dramatically changed over the course of the war, the reverse is equally true. Graham Fuller, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's National Intelligence Council, wrote an opinion piece published in the 15 July "Los Angeles Times" stating Washington "is widely perceived in Turkey as a rogue actor with arrogant and hostile intentions toward basic Turkish national interests." He added that as a result, Ankara is in the process of reassessing the strategic importance of its ties with the United States.