Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey needs to keep troops in northern Iraq after they thwarted a planned attack on its military training camp there this week by Islamic State militants.
The assertion on January 8, which Iraq denied, renews a dispute with Baghdad that erupted last month after Turkey deployed a force protection unit of around 150 troops to an area hear Bashiqa where its soldiers have been training Iraqi militia to fight IS.
Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that Turkey killed 18 IS fighters who were planning to inflitrate Bashiqa and attack the camp, in a pre-emptive strike against the IS forces.
"None of our soldiers were wounded," he said, but "this incident shows what a correct step it was" to station additional troops in Bashiqa. "They are doing what needs to be done at the right time, and will continue to do so," he said.
Baghdad has insisted that the troops weren't authorized, violate international law, and must be removed. It has taken its case to the United States, the United Nations, and other forums to try to force an immediate withdrawal.
But after pulling out some troops under pressure from the United States, Erdogan has ruled out a total withdrawal.
In response to Erdogan's remarks January 8, Iraq's Joint Operations Command in Baghdad issued a statement asserting there was no IS assault on Turkish forces "in Bashiqa or any other areas."
While that conflicted with Erdogan's account, media reports coming out of northern Iraq confirmed that 18 IS fighters were killed there this week. Some reports said they were killed by coalition air strikes, however, rather than Turkish or Iraqi troops.
Erdogan said he believes Russia is behind Iraq's sudden objection to Turkish troops in the last month. Relations between Ankara and Moscow took a nosedive at the end of November after Turkey shot down a Russian plane that it says strayed over its border with Syria.
"They [Iraq] asked us to train their soldiers and showed us this base as the venue. But as we see, afterwards, once there were problems between Russia and Turkey...these negative developments began," Erdogan said.
Turkey has pointed out that Baghdad can't protect its military trainers because Iraqi security forces have had no presence in the northern Nineveh province since they collapsed in June 2014 in the face of a sweeping advance by IS.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP