By Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The United States is providing Turkey with real-time intelligence that has helped the Turkish military target a series of attacks this month against Kurdish separatists holed up in northern Iraq, including a large airstrike on Sunday, according to Pentagon officials.
U.S. military personnel have set up a center for sharing intelligence in Ankara, the Turkish capital, providing imagery and other immediate information gathered from U.S. aircraft and unmanned drones flying over the separatists' mountain redoubts, the officials said. A senior administration official said the goal of the U.S. program is to identify the movements and activities of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting to create an autonomous enclave in Turkey.
The United States is "essentially handing them their targets," one U.S. military official said. The Turkish military then decides whether to act on the information and notifies the United States, the official said.
"They said, 'We want to do something.' We said, 'Okay, it's your decision,' " the official said yesterday, although he denied that the United States had explicitly approved the strikes.
Sunday's airstrikes provoked outrage in Baghdad, particularly among Kurdish members of the country's leadership. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, which administers three northern Iraqi provinces, called the attack "a violation of Iraq's sovereignty." He blamed the U.S. military, which controls Iraqi airspace, for allowing Turkish warplanes to cross the border. The Iraqi parliament also condemned the attacks yesterday.
The American role in aiding Turkey, a NATO ally, could complicate U.S. diplomatic initiatives in Iraq, particularly efforts to push Iraqi political leaders to enact legislation aimed at promoting political reconciliation.
The cooperation with Turkey also places the United States in the position of aiding a country that refused to allow U.S. forces to use its territory to open a northern front against the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It also alienates Iraq's Kurdish minority, whose leaders strongly support the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
But persistent attacks in Turkey by PKK rebels operating from bases in the Qandil mountains have presented a thorny dilemma for U.S. policymakers. Turkey has threatened to mount a full-scale, cross-border incursion to clear out PKK camps in northern Iraq. That could effectively open a new front in the Iraq war and disrupt the flow of supplies to the U.S. military in Iraq, which receives 70 percent of its air cargo and a third of its fuel through Turkey.
The intelligence cooperation comes as senior U.S. military and Pentagon officials have engaged in talks with their Turkish counterparts to produce a more comprehensive strategy for combating the PKK, according to a senior military official familiar with the discussions. In addition to providing targets, U.S. military officials said they have encouraged the Turks to employ nonmilitary measures against the PKK and to hold a dialogue with the Iraqi government.
U.S. intelligence allowed the Turkish military to inflict what it called "significant" losses on a group of scores of Kurdish rebels in Iraq in an operation on Dec. 1. It was also decisive in another Turkish strike on Sunday, when Iraqi officials said Turkish warplanes pounded Kurdish villages deep in northern Iraq, killing one woman and forcing hundreds of villagers to flee their homes in the largest aerial assault from Turkey this year.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earlier stated that a dearth of "actionable intelligence" was preventing more aggressive actions against the separatists. Senior military officials acknowledged that the PKK, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, had not been not a priority for the U.S. military in Iraq as it grappled with a persistent insurgency and sectarian fighting.
"We want to help the Turks with the PKK," Gates said in October. "If we were to come up with specific information, that we and the Iraqis would be prepared to do the appropriate thing and . . . provide that information," he said. Until now, however, officials had not provided details of the intelligence provided or how it was gathered. The officials, citing the sensitivity of the subject, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Turkey, according to U.S. officials, was eager to have the information. "They wanted to go after them," a U.S. military official said. The intelligence center was set up in Ankara with the help of U.S. military personnel. In addition, scarce U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles were diverted from other parts of Iraq to search for PKK locations in the mountainous area along Iraq's border with Turkey.
Senior Pentagon officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. John Craddock, head of the U.S. European Command, began talks last month with the Turkish military on joint counterinsurgency efforts against the PKK that would incorporate diplomatic, political and financial measures.
The United States is also trying to establish a regional dialogue among Turkey, Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government.
U.S. officials said Kurdish regional forces in northern Iraq recently closed PKK offices and set up roadblocks in an attempt to cut off supplies to rebel camps.
The high-level talks are a response to a pledge made by President Bush to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 5 to address a rash of cross-border incursions into Turkey. Ankara deployed up to 100,000 troops along Turkey's border with Iraq after more than 40 soldiers and civilians were killed in PKK attacks this fall.
Erdogan told reporters before a trip to the United States last month that Turkey has "run out of patience with the terrorist attacks being staged from northern Iraq" and said relations between the United States and Turkey were "undergoing a serious test."
But a senior U.S. administration official said the "deal on intelligence" and military visits had created "a sense that we're in a different phase of this relationship. The Turks want to see how this works."
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.