Detention strains already tense US-Turkey relations

Turkey awaits an apology for the arrest and release of its special forces in northern Iraq, but the US is vague.

More than a week has passed since the US-led arrest and release of a Turkish special-forces team in northern Iraq. But with no US explanation yet, Ankara's still seething.

"Have Americans forgotten how they felt when they saw their diplomats, eyes bandaged, dragged out of the [US embassy in] Tehran during Khomeini's revolution?" asks retired diplomat and newspaper columnist Gunduz Aktan. "Turks today feel the same thing about US treatment of their soldiers. Like Americans, they too will not forget."

Relations between the United States and Turkey have been tense since Turkey snubbed a US request in March to host troops for the war. A top Turkish general calls the latest incident the "worst crisis of confidence" in the two countries' more than 50-year NATO alliance. Meanwhile, Turks confidently await a full US apology.

Are they likely to get it? Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said talks were taking place in "an atmosphere of mutual understanding," but added that he found US evidence concerning the detentions "not convincing." After talks in Ankara last Thursday, a US military team went to investigate the incident in northern Iraq.

Washington has so far offered only vague justifications for the July 4 arrests. According to unconfirmed Iraqi Kurdish intelligence claims, the 11 men taken into US custody were part of a plot to assassinate the new Kurdish governor of Kirkuk.

Absolute nonsense, say officials in Ankara. Improbable, says the Kurdish governor himself. While far-fetched, the allegations tie in with one of the more inflammatory aspects of Turkey's foreign policy: its support for pro-Ankara elements among Iraq's Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority.

Turkey long feared war in Iraq could lead to an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq, with incalculable effects on its own restive Kurdish minority. For years it supported Baghdad as a guarantee of Iraq's territorial integrity. Faced with growing US determination to end Saddam Hussein's regime, though, it deepened relations with the Iraqi Turkoman Front, who were also raided by the US Friday.

Ankara insists its concern for the Turkmens is no different from its support in the 1980s of Bulgarian Turks oppressed under Communism. Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doesn't buy it. "What did Turkey do for Turkoman affected by Saddam's Arabization campaigns around Kirkuk and Mosul in the '80s and '90s? Zip. This is purely political."

Turkmens have a strong presence in and around Kirkuk, where they are a majority, according to hard-liners in Ankara, who reacted angrily to news in May that the new city governor would be a Kurd. Apart from demographics, Turkish defense of Turkmens' rights in Iraq provided a justification for pressuring Washington to thwart Kurdish attempts to get their hands on the region's huge oil wealth.

Now, analysts suspect, US forces may be tiring of Ankara's Kurdish paranoia. "With the rest of Iraq in chaos, Iraqi Kurds are Washington's only reliable allies" says political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand. Though US commanders accept Turkey's reasons for wanting to keep troops in northern Iraq, he adds, "they may be coming round to the Kurdish view that [Turkey] should leave right now."

No less critically, US anger with Turkish intransigence could undermine one aspect of regional policy on which Ankara and Washington have always agreed: the pressing need to dismantle Turkey's own Kurdish separatist organization.

The Kurdish WorkersParty (PKK) has had camps in northern Iraq since 1984, when its brutal 15-year war with the Turkish state began. Indeed, the Turkish soldiers captured July 4 were part of small force in Iraq since 1991 to monitor them.

Under pressure from the US and the EU to find a peaceful solution to its Kurdish problem, Turkey's parliament began debating Tuesday an amnesty bill to persuade PKK fighters to lay down weapons and return to Turkey.

Predictably, PKK leaders rejected the bill. "If [the Turks] insist on annihilation and denial, we will be left with only one option: a war of honor," PKK commander Murat Karayilan told the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Politika on July 2.

For Henri Barkey, Kurdish expert at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., this response shows the urgent need for close cooperation between Turkey and the US.

"On its own, even a liberal amnesty is unlikely to be enough to break up the die-hards," he says. "It must be backed up by the threat of force, US force."

Since the fall of Hussein's regime, US troops have quietly been disarming a range of foreign groups within Iraq. But their unwillingness to tackle the PKK is partly due to its size. With an estimated 4,000 fighters, a significant force would be needed to overcome it. For Mr. Ali Birand, the arrests of the special forces may have been an indirect warning to Turkey "that the sooner it finds a peaceful solution to its Kurdish problem, the better."

Professor Barkey is more pessimistic. "Centcom's harsh treatment of the Turkish soldiers shows just how angry it is," he says. "This is not an atmosphere conducive to sympathy for Turkey's very real military concerns. The message here is very clear: 'We'll deal with your PKK, but only when it is convenient for us.'"

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