The U.S. military has begun flying unarmed Predator drones out of a Turkish air base as part of a joint Turkish-American counterterrorism operation in northern Iraq, according to a senior defense official.
U.S. forces have been flying the drones from Iraqi bases since 2007 and have regularly shared the surveillance video with the Turkish government, which is concerned about attacks from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, based in northern Iraq.
But with U.S. troops scheduled to leave Iraq by year’s end — not counting a small contingent being left behind to guard the American Embassy — officials were forced to consider Turkey’s request to house the drones.
Moving them to Turkey could strengthen the diplomatic alliance with the United States, but it also risks putting the United States in the middle of a regional conflict between Turkey and Iraq, two putative allies.
Pentagon officials declined to say whether the four Predator drones being flown out of Incirlik Air Base, a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation, would be allowed to cross into Iraqi air space. The sensors and cameras on the Predator drones have a range of several miles.
Turkey’s foreign minister told reporters in Ankara on Saturday that the flight route of the drones would be controlled by the Turkish military. Pentagon officials declined to comment on the details of the arrangement between the two countries.
Meantime, Turkey is also trying to buy its own fleet of more-advanced Reaper drones from the United States. The Reaper can fly farther and faster than Predators and carry more munitions and missiles.
The Pentagon has said it favors selling the Reapers to Turkey, a NATO ally, but some lawmakers in Congress have been reluctant, citing Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel.