For a while back in September, it looked as though the US military command’s dream of a large Turkish force fighting side-by-side with American troops in Iraq was about to come true. US Central Command chief General John Abizaid and Iraq Allied Forces commander Lt.-General Ricardo Sanchez breathed a sigh of relief when Turkey’s army chief, General Hilmi Ozkok, signed off on the deployment of 10,000 Turkish combat troops in the Tikrit-Ramadi-Fallujah Sunni Triangle, the most active main battle arena in Saddam Hussein’s war against the US occupiers. The Turkish brigades were designated to form a spearhead for engaging Syrian, Saudi and Al Qaeda fighters commanded by Zohair Rahamim (as revealed in previous article).
A buoyant Sanchez assured his senior officers that he pitied any troops attempting to stand up to Turkish officers and men. “They will be crushed,” he said.
But Washington’s mistake was to forget the Iraqi Kurds and historic Kurdish-Turkish enmities.
America’s staunchest allies in northern Iraq, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, put US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer on notice: If Turkish forces set foot in the Sunni Triangle, the Kurdish militiamen fighting there secretly alongside GIs, will be pulled out forthwith. Furthermore, all Turkish military supply convoys crossing through northern Iraq will have to apply to the Kurdish authorities for a license and accept an armed Kurdish escort.
US war planners were left with the choice of reassigning the Turkish contingent to the non-Kurdish Anbar region in western Iraq, a wedge of territory contained by the Turkish frontier and the Jordanian and Syrian borders. The reconfigured Turkish mission would be to seal off Iraq’s western frontiers to the infiltration of Arab and Al Qaeda fighters from Syria. US military strategists have long believed that faced with an armed Turkish presence at Iraq’s entry points, Syria would think twice about sending guerrilla fighters through. The Turkish presence near their own frontier would have the added benefit of precluding the need for their supplies to traverse Kurdish lands in the north.
But that was not the end of it.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, the Arab tribes controlling the Anbar province welcomed a recent delegation of Turkish military commanders and senior government officials with all the ceremonial of Bedouin hospitality. As they digested the lavish feast placed before them, their smiling hosts declared: “You are always very welcome. But if your soldiers come here, we shall kill them one by one.”
The Turkish delegation returned to Ankara in shock. In the report of their mission to prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and army chief Ozkok, they stressed that to establish an autonomous logistical infrastructure to support the Turkish combat units in Iraq, 50,000 soldiers would be required – five times the original estimate. This figure would also provide a reserve for the front-line troops. Reporting on their talks in Baghdad, the Turkish delegation gained the impression that American officials and military commanders had developed cold feet and would not be particularly sorry if the Turkish contingent never materialized.
The upshot of these maneuvers is a tacit, low-profile assent to forget about deploying Turkish forces in Iraq for the time being. Turkish forces remain Iraq’s most elusive military factor – as they were in the early stages of the Iraq war. Six months after President George W. Bush marked the end of the combat stage of the conflict, the American command must reconcile itself to doing without a professional, highly-trained allied force. The US army will have to carry on fighting Iraq guerrillas unaided.