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Turkey's Bombing Hits US-Iraq Relations
Iraqi Leaders Protest Lack of US Protection, But America Choosing Other Priority
Iraqis inspect the damage following air strikes by Turkish warplanes in Qandil, 16 December 2007.
Shwan Mohammad/AFP/Getty
Iraqis inspect the damage following air strikes by Turkish warplanes in Qandil, 16 December 2007.

Turkish airstrikes over the weekend reportedly aiming to level PKK sanctuaries in Kurdistan have also appeared to score a direct hit against US-Iraqi relations, though much of the public demonstration of Iraqi discontent being directed towards the United States springs from domestic political necessity and has little risk of impacting the American agenda.

Baghdad was caught unaware by the Turkish onslaught over the weekend, which reportedly included dozens of fighter planes dropping bombs on a chain of villages along the border in Dohuk province, and further inside Iraqi territory in the Qandil mountains.

News that the United States received advance notification of the operation has sparked controversy and consternation throughout the ranks of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. But the implication that the Turkish military may have sought a greenlight from their American counterparts has driven the tension to near-crisis--one the American side is working frantically to defuse.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, commander of the Turkish Army, sparked intense speculation over the US role in the operation with comments he made on Turkish television Sunday night.

Buyakanit mentioned how the US provided intelligence used in the operation--intel-sharing being a key element of recent American pledges for increased cooperation on the PKK problem--but then he said something implying that the United States represents the sovereign power with authority over Iraqi territory.

"America last night opened Iraqi airspace to us. By opening Iraqi airspace to us last night, America gave its approval to the operation," he said, according to the Anatolian state news agency.

The general's comments imply--and are being widely interpreted--as meaning that Turkey sought and received permission from the US to enter Iraqi airspace for the operation, a characterization American officials are working hard to re-frame.

Turkish newspaper Cumhurriyet quoted Kathy Schalow, the spokesperson for the US Embassy in Ankara, as saying that the Turkish side had informed US authorities beforehand about Sunday’s operation, but stressed the decision to carry out the strike was up to the Turks and no US consent was needed.

“Turkey didn’t ask for our approval,” she said. “Conducting this operation is its own decision.”

Reuters cited an unnamed official at the US embassy in Ankara, likely also Schalow, who reiterated: "We have not approved any decision, it is not for us to approve. However, we were informed before the event."

In all likelihood, the Turkish military is bound by terms set out in its intelligence-sharing agreement with the US, and required to alert American officials in advance of any significant offensive.

The US position throughout discussions with counterparts in Ankara has been that coordination would be key to preventing any unintended tragedies along the border, so calling to ensure the American Air Force wouldn't have any jets prowling the skies around Dohuk would have been one very important line needing crossed off the pre-flight checklist before Turkish bombers lifted off Sunday morning.

Even if Turkey did not view US approval as necessary for the operation, the incident has laid bare the realities of Iraqi sovereignty--where two foreign nations discuss between themselves what needs to happen to secure their own interests inside Iraq, while the country's own leaders wait to learn of its fate in tomorrow's newspapers.

Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari charged on Monday that the Turkish bombardment had caused civilian casualties, and, picking up some rhetoric from the American playbook, appealed to the need for "coordination" in order to prevent the death of innocents. "We understand Turkish concerns over the presence of PKK, but yesterday there was some collateral damages to civilians. ... such action must be coordinated with the Iraqi government," he said.

Iraq's government on Sunday summoned the Turkish ambassador for a formal rebuke, and Parliament issued a statement condemning the bombings, but the harshest comments came from the political leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

AP reports Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, condemned the attacks in a statement, saying they were "conducted with indirect U.S. approval, as defending the sovereignty of Iraq and the Kurdish region is within the Americans' responsibilities."

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani also took a strongly critical approach towards US inaction, charging that the Americans were failing in their responsibilities towards Iraq by not working to prevent Turkish violation of Iraqi airspace.

PM Barzani urged US leaders "to take a political stand to rein in the Turkish military so that such violation of our sovereignty would not be repeated under whatever pretext."

While the US wants to minimize the extent to which its border policy might antagonize the Kurdish regional government, more serious concerns guide its decisions on the northern front, such as the growing frequency with which Tehran and Ankara find they have aligned security interests regarding Kurdistan.

Kurdish-backed Roj TV, which sometimes acts as a mouthpiece for the PKK, reported Sunday that the Turkish air campaign had been launched in coordination with Iran. Though likely an erroneous account, it's not far enough from reality for American interests.

Preventing the development of a solid Turkish-Iranian alliance is a key concern of the American administration. As long as Tehran stands ready to step in to assist Ankara in its campaign against the PKK, the US will, and must, do whatever it can to be everything Turkey needs--even if that means infuriating Iraqi leaders.


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