TIME: The Turks Enter Iraq


Even as the U.S. works to stabilize a postwar Iraq, Turkey is setting out to create a footprint of its own in the Kurdish areas of the country. In the days after U.S. forces captured Saddam's powerbase in Tikrit, a dozen Turkish Special Forces troops were dispatched south from Turkey. Their target: the northern oil city of Kirkuk, now controlled by the U.S. 173rd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade. Using the pretext of accompanying humanitarian aid the elite soldiers passed through the northern city of Arbil on Tuesday. They wore civilian clothes, their vehicles lagging behind a legitimate aid convoy. They'd hoped to pass unnoticed. But at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kirkuk they ran into trouble. "We were waiting for them," says a U.S. paratroop officer.

The Turkish Special Forces team put up no resistance though a mean arsenal was discovered in their cars, including a variety of AK-47s, M4s, grenades, body armor and night vision goggles. "They did not come here with a pure heart," says U.S. brigade commander Col. Bill Mayville. "Their objective is to create an environment that can be used by Turkey to send a large peacekeeping force into Kirkuk."

The presence of the Turkish soldiers highlights the increasing possibilities of instability in the region, which has a sizable Turkoman population that has clashed with the Kurdish majority since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. In the first days after Kirkuk fell to allied forces on April 10th, Turkoman families and political parties were attacked by bands of Kurdish looters. In a dramatic display on April 11, an enraged group of Turkoman men dumped the body of a small boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, in front of the Daralsalum Hotel where international journalists had taken rooms. He'd been shot through the waist at close range by a PK light machine gun. The 7.62mm round travelled up through his torso and exited through his skull, leaving a hollowed shell where his little head was supposed to be.

American commanders in the city believe the covert Turkish team was meant to inflame these kind of tensions. "These [Turkish] forces are tied in to Turkoman groups in the city," says Col Mayville. The 173rd Airborne commanders suspect an amalgam of local Turkoman parties under the banner of the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITF) were to be used by the covert team to wreak havoc. "In this first convoy was real aid. They'd do this two or three times then money or weapons would have started flowing in. We suspect their role was to strongarm or discipline the members of the ITF. What they're doing is crystallizing the ITF along the Turkish agenda," says Col. Mayville.

By Wednesday U.S. paratroopers were holding 23 people associated with the Turkish Special Forces team. Some were drivers and aid workers. But a dozen of them, says Col. Mayville, were identified as soldiers. "We held them for a night, brought them in, fed them and watched their security. After all," he says wryly, "they are our allies." Early Thursday morning American troops escorted the Turkish commandos back over the border.