The United States said today it was creating a special military command to protect northern Iraq and satisfy Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Iraq border.
The creation of the Military Coordination and Liaison Command is part of a U.S. effort to dissuade Turkey from sending troops to northern Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq last week.
Marine Maj. Gen. Henry P. Osman said at a news conference here that the new command would serve as a communications link between the Turks and Iraqi Kurds, who oppose Turkey's threat to invade Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
The surprise appearance of the Marine general was a departure from the U.S. military's stealthy operations in northern Iraq. Osman provided few details about the command, but said it meant the United States would "coordinate" humanitarian aid and "provide a democracy" that would ensure minority rights in Iraq's Kurdish region. "U.S. and coalition partners support a secure, stable and viable Iraq, which includes the preservation of its current borders," he said, declining to answer reporters' questions.
He said the liaison command would "assist in 'deconfliction' of military and humanitarian activities," but did not elaborate.
Turkey has thousands of troops massed on its border and has threatened to occupy northern Iraq and disarm the Kurds. Nervous about Turkey's own restive Kurdish minority, the government in Ankara seeks to use its military force to block the potential flow of refugees into Turkey, to protect the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq and to block any attempt by Kurds in Turkey and Iraq to form an independent state.
On Sunday, President Bush spoke out against Turkish intervention. "We're making it very clear that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq. They know our policy," he said.
Kurdish officials fielded questions following the remarks by the U.S. general. Iraqi Kurds have said they would take up arms if Turkish troops enter Iraq.
"The Turkish army is not coming in," said Hoshyar Zubari, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two military-political organizations that administer northern Iraq. The autonomous zone has been free of central government control for 12 years.
Despite Zubari's assessment, the issue of Turkish intervention has not been decided.
Today, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with Turkish officials in Ankara, discussing Turkey's rationale for sending troops to northern Iraq. Turkey's chief of general staff, Gen. Milmi Ozkok, told reporters: "The Turkish armed forces have made certain plans and preparations. When the right time and the right place comes, the necessary decisions will be made and put into effect."
Creation of the liaison command follows months of U.S.-Turkish negotiations over Turkey's role in the war against Iraq.
The Bush administration had agreed to Turkish military participation as part of the war to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Turks refused to allow U.S. troops to gather in Turkey to stage attacks from the north. Currently, Turkey's cooperation is limited to permitting U.S. planes to fly over Turkish territory.
Failure to bring the Turks into the war blocked Pentagon plans to mount an offensive from the north involving 62,000 troops. No ground action in Iraqi-held northern territory has taken place. Instead, warplanes have been bombing targets near the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
Today, airstrikes were launched against targets near the towns of Quayir and Makmur, which lie northwest of Kirkuk on the road to Mosul. One mid-morning strike rattled windows and walls 10 miles away in Kurdish-held territory.
To the east of Kirkuk, planes bombed a barracks near the frontier of the autonomous zone and a military command site in the town of Qara Hanjir.
As many as 130 U.S. Special Operations troops have been working to locate targets for airstrikes, Kurdish officials said. Osman's visit coincided with the arrival of scores of additional U.S. troops, but the events appeared unrelated. The newly arrived soldiers were being dispatched to take part in an offensive against anti-American Islamic militants in the Kurdish zone and to join Special Operations units already in place.
Osman met with Kurdish military officials Sunday and was scheduled to meet today with Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The command will maintain an office in northern Iraq but will be based in Silopi, a town in southeastern Turkey near the border.
Kurdish officials were enthusiastic about the talks with the U.S. officer. "The Americans are saying they are here in northern Iraq," Zubari said.
Both Zubari's group and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which also administers a part of northern Iraq, are eager to show Kurdish-U.S. cooperation. In their view, the closer the relationship, the more likely Washington would be to support Kurdish autonomy in Iraq if Hussein is ousted.
Kurdish forces, numbering up to 70,000, range from trained, fatigue-clad troops to Minuteman-like bands wearing traditional baggy pants and sashes. The forces have expressed desire to join the battle and head south. They have special interest in moving toward Kirkuk, which they regard as part of the Kurdish homeland.
Ankara, however, claims that Kirkuk, the hub of Iraq's oil-rich north, is historically Turkish. Turkey has threatened to send troops to occupy the city if Kurdish forces attempt to move there.
Pan reported from Ankara.