Detention Strains Already Tense US-Turkey Relations ; Turkey Awaits an Apology for the Arrest and Release of Its Special Forces in Northern Iraq, but the US Is Vague

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More than a week has passed since the US-led arrest and release of a Turkish special-forces team in northern Iraq. But with no US explanation yet, Ankara's still seething.

"Have Americans forgotten how they felt when they saw their diplomats, eyes bandaged, dragged out of the [US embassy in] Tehran during Khomeini's revolution?" asks retired diplomat and newspaper columnist Gunduz Aktan. "Turks today feel the same thing about US treatment of their soldiers. Like Americans, they too will not forget."

Relations between the United States and Turkey have been tense since Turkey snubbed a US request in March to host troops for the war. A top Turkish general calls the latest incident the "worst crisis of confidence" in the two countries' more than 50-year NATO alliance. Meanwhile, Turks confidently await a full US apology.

Are they likely to get it? Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said talks were taking place in "an atmosphere of mutual understanding," but added that he found US evidence concerning the detentions "not convincing." After talks in Ankara last Thursday, a US military team went to investigate the incident in northern Iraq.

Washington has so far offered only vague justifications for the July 4 arrests. According to unconfirmed Iraqi Kurdish intelligence claims, the 11 men taken into US custody were part of a plot to assassinate the new Kurdish governor of Kirkuk.

Absolute nonsense, say officials in Ankara. Improbable, says the Kurdish governor himself. While far-fetched, the allegations tie in with one of the more inflammatory aspects of Turkey's foreign policy: its support for pro-Ankara elements among Iraq's Turkish- speaking Turkmen minority.

Turkey long feared war in Iraq could lead to an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq, with incalculable effects on its own restive Kurdish minority. For years it supported Baghdad as a guarantee of Iraq's territorial integrity. Faced with growing US determination to end Saddam Hussein's regime, though, it deepened relations with the Iraqi Turkoman Front, who were also raided by the US Friday.

Ankara insists its concern for the Turkmens is no different from its support in the 1980s of Bulgarian Turks oppressed under Communism. Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doesn't buy it. "What did Turkey do for Turkoman affected by Saddam's Arabization campaigns around Kirkuk and Mosul in the '80s and '90s? Zip. This is purely political."

Turkmens have a strong presence in and around Kirkuk, where they are a majority, according to hard-liners in Ankara, who reacted angrily to news in May that the new city governor would be a Kurd. …


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