ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s military on Monday bitterly condemned the US army for seizing commandos in northern Iraq in an incident that underlined souring ties between the two NATO allies.
The arrest of 11 special forces officers on Friday and their release two days later also highlighted deep Turkish military concerns about its role in Iraq and its influence at home.
Turkey has had small detachmen’s of troops in northern Iraq since the 1990s pursuing Turkish Kurdish separatists.
"It turned into a major crisis of trust between the Turkish and US forces and became a crisis,” the head of Turkey’s powerful military General Staff–Hilmi Ozkok–told reporters.
He said the incident touched on "national honor and the honor of the Turkish armed forces.”
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told US Vice President Dick Cheney–in their second telephone conversation in two days–he expected those behind the arrests to be brought to account.
His office said in a statement the two sides had agreed to set up a joint commission in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to probe the incident. It would start work on Tuesday.
"(Erdogan) expressed his belief the commission will…create the necessary environment to render Turkish-American relations in the region more effective,” the statement said.
Diplomatic sources in the Middle East said one of those detained was a Turkish colonel whom US or British forces had expelled from Iraq twice previously for "suspicious activities.”
They said there was evidence the soldiers were involved in a plot to kill the interim governor of Kirkuk. Turkey denies the suggestions.
Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek made clear Ankara had no intention of leaving northern Iraq.
The Turkish military–with an estimated strength in Iraq of between a few thousand and 10,000–seek to control a 20 km (12 mile) deep buffer zone inside Iraq. They also want freedom to operate against Turkish Kurdish rebels in the mountains there.
"The reasons why Turkish troops need to be there still exist–so therefore our withdrawal is not on the agenda,” Cicek told reporters.
The incident–which produced dramatic newspaper headlines such as "Rambo Crisis” and "Ugly American,” came three months after Turkey’s parliament unexpectedly refused the US army permission to use Turkish soil for its invasion of Iraq.
The Pentagon–long Turkey’s chief advocate in Washington–saw army failure to promote the US case among politicians as a major factor. Military reticence may in part have been the result of its disapproval of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government with its Islamist roots.
"The result the army did not expect was that the United States has simply left Turkey out of the mainstream decision making process over Iraq,” said Dogu Ergil of the Tosam social research institute.
Washington persuaded Turkey not to dispatch extra troops into northern Iraq–where Ankara fears Kurds may try to found their own state and foment renewed Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
"The Turkish military wants to feel it has the same freedom in northern Iraq it had before. The US wants to make everyone aware the rules have now changed,” said newspaper commentator Cengis Candar.
The Turkish military is cultivating the Turkmen–ethnic Turks–especially as Kurds return to areas from which they had been expelled under toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Critics fear Ankara plans to use them as a "Trojan Horse” to disrupt any Kurdish-dominated administration.