Turkey reacts with fury to massive US assault on northern Iraqi city

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

12 September 2004


The US military assault on Tal Afar, an ethnically Turkmen city in northern Iraq, has provoked a furious reaction from the Turkish government which is demanding the US call off the attack.

American and Iraqi government forces last week sealed off Tal Afar, a city west of Mosul belonging to Iraq's embattled Turkmen minority. The US said it killed 67 insurgents while a Turkmen leader claims 60 civilians were killed and 100 wounded. The massive and indiscriminate use of US firepower in built-up areas, leading to heavy civilian casualties in cities like Tal Afar, Fallujah and Najaf, is coming under increasing criticism in Iraq. The US "came into Iraq like an elephant astride its war machine," said Ibrahim Jaafari, the influential Iraqi Vice President.

The Americans claim that Tal Afar is a hub for militants smuggling fighters and arms into Iraq from nearby Syria. Turkish officials make clear in private they believe that the Kurds, the main ally of the US in northern Iraq, have managed to get US troops involved on their side in the simmering ethnic conflict between Kurds and Turkmen.

"The Iraqi government forces with the Americans are mainly Kurdish," complained one Turkmen source. A Turkish official simply referred to the Iraqi military units involved in the attack on Tal Afar as "peshmerga", the name traditionally given to Kurdish fighters.

The US army account of its aims in besieging Tal Afar is largely at odds with that given by Turkmen and may indicate that its officers are at sea in the complex ethnic mosaic of Iraq. The US says that in recent weeks the city was taken over by anti-American militants who repeatedly attacked US and Iraqi government forces.

"Tal Afar is a tribal city and its people were not patient with the presence of American forces," said Farouq Abdullah Abdul Rahman, the president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, in Baghdad yesterday. He agreed that there was friction with US forces but denied that anything justified the siege, with many Turkmen close to the front line fleeing into the countryside. "More than 60 people have been killed, including women and children, and 100 wounded."

There has been tension, sometimes boiling over into gun battles, between the Kurds and the Turkmens since last year. As Saddam Hussein's regime fell apart Kurdish troops, aided by the US air force, advanced to take Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurds felt they at last had a chance to reverse 40 years of ethnic cleansing which had seen their people massacred or driven from their homes.

Both Arabs and Turkmen fear ethnic cleansing in reverse. In Tal Afar, a poor city with high unemployment, there was friction from the beginning. Days after the fall of Saddam the Kurdistan Democratic Party appointed its own mayor called Abdul Haleq in the city. He ran up a yellow Kurdish flag outside his office. He was told by local people to take it down or die. He refused and was killed the following day. His office, along with the yellow flag, was burned by an angry crowd.

Mr Rahman said that an agreement was hammered out by tribal leaders and the Americans last week in Mosul whereby Iraqi police would take charge in Tal Afar but American troops would not enter the city or try to disarm people. This failed to stick when there was more shooting. A Turkmen eyewitness in Tal Afar at the time claimed that seven Kurdish gunmen had fired at the Americans to lure them into attacking the Turkmen.

The Turkmen of Tal Afar are Shia Muslims, unlike most of the rest of their community who are Sunni. A leading Shia cleric, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said that the Americans' use of heavy force in the city caused "catastrophes" that could have been avoided if Iraqis were in charge of security. Responding to the US claim that there was a large terrorist organisation there, Mr al-Hakim said: "Since the day after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed Tal Afar had terrorist groups and this is not new. The new thing is that the [US] military operations are huge."

The US was probably more impressed by the furious Turkish government reaction to the siege. Turkey's Foreign Ministry said: "We have asked the US authorities to stop the offensive in Tal Afar as soon as possible and avoid indiscriminate use of force." The Turkish General Staff said it was also watching developments. On Friday medical supplies were allowed into the city.

The attack on Tal Afar shows how the US can capture any city in Iraq but it must also pay a high political price for using its great firepower in the middle of heavily populated areas.