Turkey rejects Iraq plea as jets strike

Click to follow
AS AMERICAN and British warplanes again pounded targets in northern and southern Iraq, allegedly killing five people in the process, Baghdad appeared to have failed yesterday in a mission to Turkey aimed at prising open the ring of foes that encircles it.

After a meeting in Ankara, Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish Prime Minister, rejected the urgings of Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Premier, that Turkey stop American aircraft from using the Incirlik base in the south-east of the country as a base to patrol the no-fly zone imposed by the Gulf War allies in northern Iraq.

The visit by Mr Aziz - forced into a hard overland journey precisely because of the ban on Iraqi planes in the region - is part of a wider strategy by Baghdad to gain some elbow room in the region, alongside a ferocious propaganda campaign against Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and efforts to mend fences with the old enemy, Iran.

But this trip by a senior Iraqi figure to a key member of Nato especially alarmed Washington because Mr Ecevit, a prickly left-wing nationalist, has more than once voiced unease over the American attacks, which are now an almost daily event, and because of the common stance of Turkey and Iraq on the ever explosive Kurdish question.

To an extent, Mr Ecevit allayed those fears yesterday. Notwithstanding a reference to "my old friend" Mr Aziz, he left no doubt that permission to use Incirlik would not be withdrawn. "The US and British pilots open fire only to defend themselves," he said, though he noted that Turkey was monitoring matters closely and "with sensitivity".

That last phrase was, almost certainly, a reference to the great shared problem of Iraq and Turkey - the large Kurdish minorities in both countries pressing for a separate and independent Kurdish state - which could turn critical if American protection for the Kurds living in the northern no- fly zone inadvertently gives them the opportunity to break loose.

Any such attempt would almost inevitably fan the separatist Kurdish movement in Turkey, whose fugitive leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is regarded as a terrorist by Ankara, the US and most European governments, but who has a massive following among his people, both in Turkey and in exile communities in Europe.

Iraq's efforts in the north have been matched by verbal diatribes against Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which host the bases from which British and American aircraft patrol the no-fly zone protecting the Shia Muslims in the south.

The aim is the same: to keep challenging the US and British flights, assert Iraq's sovereignty over its airspace, and hope that - as alleged incidents such as yesterday's pile up - the tide of international sympathy will turn in its favour.

The Baghdad authorities said five people were killed and 22 injured in a series of attacks by US and British jets on civilian and military targets in the south. In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said four sites had been hit, including a missile base, two telecommunications facilities and an air defence site, while in London, a Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that RAF planes had been involved, after violations by Iraq of the southern no-fly zone. As Mr Aziz made his fruitless mission, a high-level Pentagon delegation, led by Air Force General Lloyd Newton, was in the Turkish capital, Ankara for talks, during which they paid symbolic tribute to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, whose mausoleum overlooks the capital. It was a pointed gesture, underlining how much Washington values its alliance with Turkey, and also how much Turkey, deprived of $30bn of trade thanks to the UN embargo against Iraq, needs its American connection.