The U.S. military has flown unarmed Predator drones, similar to the armed version seen above, from Iraqi bases and shared the planes’ surveillance video with Turkey. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The Obama administration is considering a request from Turkey to base a fleet of Predator drones on Turkish soil for counterterrorism operations in northern Iraq, a decision that could strengthen a diplomatic alliance but drag the United States deeper into a regional conflict.

The U.S. military has flown the unarmed Predators from Iraqi bases since 2007 and shared the planes’ surveillance video with Turkey as part of a secretive joint crackdown against fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Unless a new home for the Predators is found, however, the counterterrorism partnership could cease by Dec. 31, when all U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq.

The Obama administration has not yet made a decision on the Turkish request, according to senior U.S. military officials.

Previously undisclosed diplomatic cables show Turkey has become highly dependent on the Predators, U-2 spy aircraft and other U.S. intelligence sources in its conflict with the PKK. The Kurdish group, which is fighting to create an autonomous enclave in Turkey, has launched cross-border attacks from its hideouts in northern Iraq for years. Turkey has responded with airstrikes and artillery attacks but has also sent ground troops into Iraq, further destabilizing an already volatile area.

Turkey’s request to host the Predators on its territory is an unexamined consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which some countries fear could leave a power vacuum in an unstable region. It also underscores how U.S. unmanned aircraft have swiftly become the leading tactical weapon against terrorist groups around the world, as well as a favored instrument of foreign policy.

Besides deploying armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the United States is expanding drone missions over Yemen and Somalia. It has sent surveillance drones into Mexico for counternarcotics operations and supplied small surveillance drones to the Colombian military for counterterrorism missions.

Moral and policy dilemmas

While the drones have proved to be a highly effective tool in waging unconventional warfare, their rapid proliferation presents the U.S. government with moral and policy dilemmas. The Predator missions in northern Iraq have bolstered relations with Turkey, for instance but have also further exposed the United States to a messy local war.

Although the U.S. government officially labels the PKK a terrorist organization, the group has not targeted American interests.

The classified diplomatic cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, reveal that Turkish officials have repeatedly pressed their American counterparts to escalate their involvement against the PKK and eradicate the group before U.S. forces leave Iraq.

“Before your withdrawal, it is our common responsibility to eliminate this threat,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Army Gen. Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in a February 2010 meeting in Ankara, according to a cable summarizing the meeting.

Odierno and other U.S. officials agreed to Turkish requests to adopt an “enhanced joint action plan” against the PKK, according to other cables. But the U.S. military has tried to keep its involvement limited, while concealing the details. It has continued to fly surveillance missions, share intelligence and help select targets, but it has resisted Turkish pressure to bomb or attack Kurdish militants directly, the cables show.

Michael Hammer, a State Department spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about the role of the Predators. “Turkey is a long-standing ally and partner of the United States, and we continue to support Turkey in its struggle against PKK terrorism through various forms of cooperation,” he said.

“We support continued cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK, which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States,” he added.

Hammer also said the State Department “strongly condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information” contained in the cables. “It threatens our national security and undermines our effort to work with countries to solve shared problems.”

Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Turkish Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Worsening war with militants

The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has worsened in recent weeks. In retaliation for PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers and convoys, Turkey has ordered a barrage of airstrikes that have killed more than 150 Kurdish militants since mid-August, according to the Turkish military. Human Rights Watch has reported that a handful of civilians in northern Iraq have been killed and that hundreds have been forced from their homes there.

More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict since 1984, when the PKK began a violent campaign for self-rule in southeastern Turkey.

Turkey asked the Obama administration this year to relocate the Predators to Incirlik Air Base, a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation, according to a senior U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks have not been made public. “They want to base them in Turkey and allow us to fly them across the border into Iraq,” the official said.

U.S. aircraft based at Incirlik played a pivotal role in enforcing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the first Gulf War until Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. About 1,500 U.S. military workers are stationed there.

It’s unclear whether U.S. or Turkish officials are seeking formal permission from Iraq to continue the drone flights, or whether Baghdad would simply turn a blind eye to the Predators when they cross into northern Iraq.

If Iraq objected to the drone flights as a violation of its sovereignty, the unmanned aircraft could hover in Turkish airspace and use cameras to peer miles across the border. There is little to prevent the Predators from making incursions, however; Iraq has only a fledgling air force to patrol its skies.

U.S. military officials favor the drone agreement with Turkey as a way of preventing the conflict with the PKK from spiraling out of control. They say U.S. cooperation has restrained Turkey from launching bigger offensives into northern Iraq to try to wipe out the PKK. The Turkish military sent tens of thousands of troops across the border in 1995 and 1997, and briefly deployed a smaller force in 2008.

“Our worry is that there would be some sort of humanitarian disaster up there,” said the senior U.S. military official. “It’s a real volatile area.”

U.S. officials have sought to serve as an intermediary between Ankara and Baghdad, as well as with Iraqi Kurdish leaders who control the northern part of the country, encouraging them to take a harder line against the PKK.

In many ways, however, Washington has been caught in a conflict between two allies. Turkey views the PKK as an existential threat. But Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who are strongly pro-American, are reluctant to crack down on fellow Kurds.

The U.S. government has publicly acknowledged providing broad intelligence and diplomatic support to Turkey to counter the PKK but has revealed little about the nature of the cooperation.

Joint intelligence cell

Fresh details, however, are contained in the U.S. diplomatic cables, which show that the hub of the effort is a “combined intelligence fusion cell” in Ankara that is staffed 24 hours a day by U.S. and Turkish military personnel.

The cell receives video feeds from Predators flying over suspected PKK camps in northern Iraq, according to the cables. The U.S. military usually operates the Predators between 12 and 16 hours a day, the cables show.

In addition to the drones, the U.S. military shares imagery from U-2 spy planes, RC-135 and EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft, as well as RQ-4 Global Hawks, a high-altitude surveillance drone.

The fusion cell in Ankara opened in November 2007 after then-President George W. Bush agreed in a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan to help go after the PKK. Before that, Turkey had complained bitterly about a U.S. reluctance to use its forces in Iraq to hunt down PKK fighters.

In its first year of operation, the fusion cell enabled Turkey to launch more than 200 cross-border air and artillery strikes, according to a U.S. Embassy cable dated Dec. 4, 2008. The first salvo came on Dec. 16, 2007, when Turkish F-16 jets attacked 33 PKK targets in northern Iraq and the Qandil mountains, followed by combined air and artillery attacks on Dec. 17, 22 and 26.

The Turkish government claimed that 150 Kurdish militants were killed during the 11-day period, but a classified cable from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara estimated that “a more likely number is around a dozen terrorists, along with housing, training sites and cave complexes.” The embassy also reported the death of a civilian in one of the strikes and the displacement of village families but acknowledged that officials lacked the ability to independently verify the damage.

According to the cables, U.S. personnel also assist the Turks “where appropriate” in selecting which PKK targets to attack. The Turkish military also provides advance warning of their air or artillery strikes to the U.S. military to avoid “conflicting” with U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

At times, however, those warnings arrive with little notice. On Dec. 15, 2007, for example, the Turkish military informed the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation in Ankara at 11:47 p.m. that it would launch its fighter planes at 1 a.m. U.S. military officials in Iraq scrambled to ensure that U.S. troops and aircraft weren’t in the way and gave the Turks an all-clear at 2:55 a.m. Five minutes later, Turkish forces opened fire.

The joint efforts against the PKK caused an immediate improvement in U.S.-Turkish military relations, with Gen. Ilker Basbug, commander of the Turkish armed forces, pronouncing them “perfect” in 2008.

At the same time, Turkish officials have persistently pressed the U.S. government for more. The cables show that the Turkish military has asked that the Predators provide 24-hour surveillance on a permanent basis and that they guide Turkish jets by pinpointing PKK targets with lasers.

More significantly, Turkey has tried to buy its own armed drones from the United States, seeking to purchase MQ-9 Reapers, a larger and more modern version of the Predator. The Bush and Obama administrations have supported the request, but Congress has withheld approval so far. Some legislators are reluctant to sell the aircraft to Turkey given Ankara’s deteriorating relations with Israel, a close U.S. ally.

Selling armed drones to Turkey poses other risks. PKK leaders have made vague public threats against the United States, warning them not to supply Turkey with “special assassination aircraft.”

“If the U.S. gives these aircraft to Turkey and if we are hit by them, then we will hold the U.S. responsible,” PKK leader Murat Karayilan told an interviewer in February 2010, according to a U.S. Embassy cable. “This would mean that the U.S. directly is involved in this war.”