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Pilots say U.S. allows Turkey to bomb Kurds

By RANDALL RICHARD, Providence Journal, 03-25-2001

Turkish planes routinely attack Kurdish rebels in the no-fly zone over Iraq.

ADANA, Turkey - The Turkish Air Force, with the apparent knowledge and acquiescence of the United States, has been routinely bombing Kurdish separatist sanctuaries in northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War.

Scott Ritter, the United Nations' former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, calls it "a secret, illegal war" a war that puts the United States in the untenable political position of abandoning the Kurdish people it says it wants to protect.

Among the few eyewitnesses to these air strikes are the pilots who patrol the no-fly zones over Iraq almost every day, ostensibly to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shiite population in the south from Iraqi air attacks.

Until now, these pilots both American and British have remained largely silent about the Turkish incursions.

Even Ritter, who oversaw the dismantling of Iraq's top-secret effort to produce weapons of mass destruction, says he has no firsthand knowledge of the Turkish air attacks but has been told by a knowledgeable military source that they occur.

The enforcement of the no-fly zones and the impunity with which the Turkish Air Force violates them have now gone on for so long, however, that they have become an open secret among a number of the U.S. pilots who patrol northern Iraq from Incirlik Airbase, in Turkey.

In fact, they are so routine that some pilots now respond to questions about the Turkish attacks and the so-called "de-confliction" procedures practiced by U.S. pilots to avoid them as if they were common knowledge.

During recent interviews at Otis Air Force Base, on Cape Cod, and at Hancock Field, in Syracuse, N.Y., two pilots acknowledged, for example, that they are ordered to return to their Turkish airbase whenever the Turks launch an attack.

For veteran pilots like Col. Anthony Basile, vice commander of the 174th Air National Guard Fighter Squadron, in Syracuse, the Turkish air strikes are primarily a logistical concern.

What you don't want, Basile says, is to have lots of airplanes crisscrossing the no-fly zones when you're on patrol.

It is for this reason, he says, that U.S. and British warplanes are ordered back to their bases whenever the Turkish Air Force crosses the Iraqi border to attack the Kurds.

Referring to the AWACS planes that monitor all air traffic over the no-fly zones, Basile says "when they see them coming, they just send us home."

"Sometimes," he says, "we pass them. Sometimes we don't. But we are never in the airspace when the Turks are flying."

Asked if it troubles him that U.S. aircraft are ordered to clear the airspace so the Turks can safely go in to bomb the people he is risking his life to protect, Basile acknowledges that it sometimes leaves him shaking his head.

But it is his job, he says, to execute policy, not to make it.

"That's not the first time I ever raised my eyebrows," Basile says.

"During my military career I've raised them quite a few times. But, you know, when we're told to leave that something else is going on we leave. We can't really question the decisions that are being made for us."

At Otis Air Force Base, where more than 200 members of the Air National Guard returned last December after a two-week deployment in the no-fly zone, Major Marty Richard is slightly more guarded.

Asked if the no-fly missions over northern Iraq are still geared toward protecting the Kurds, Richard concedes, "The focus of that mission has changed drastically."

Shortly after the Gulf War, during Operation Provide Comfort, he says, the goal was to protect the Kurds, "but what we're doing now is no-fly-zone enforcement. The subtle nuance," he says, "I will leave to you."

Asked directly if U.S. patrols over northern Iraq get cancelled or cut short in advance of Turkish incursions into the no-fly zone, Richard says they do.

"Suffice it to say," he adds, "that when the Turks are involved with the Kurds well, we've got a political football."

TURKEY, a key member of NATO and an important staging area for the U.S. military in the Middle East, has struggled for years against Kurdish rebels who have taken up arms to establish self-rule in southeast Turkey. In an attempt to crush the rebel movement, the Turkish army has periodically launched cross-border raids against Kurdish sanctuaries in northern Iraq.

According to officials in Baghdad, Turkish air attacks in northern Iraq also are routine. Last August, a spokesman in Dubai for one Kurdish faction the Kurdish Democratic Party told Agence France- Presse News Service that in one such raid, 38 Kurdish civilians were killed and 11 were wounded.

Maj. Michael Caldwell, a spokesman for the Operation Northern Watch Command Task Force at Incirlik Airbase, said he could not confirm either the Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq or whether there are U.S. flight procedures to accommodate them.

"All I can confirm to you is what our ONW [Operation Northern Watch] mission is and it's pretty straightforward and that is to enforce the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. How we do that, when we do that, we don't talk about."

Calls last week to the Turkish Embassy in Washington were referred to the embassy's military attach, who could not be reached for comment.

According to retired Rear Adm. E. J. Carroll, it is no surprise that the U.S. military won't talk about its flight procedures during the Turkish air strikes.

"It's one of those inconvenient facts that are best ignored," says Carroll, a retired Navy aviator who now heads the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank. "It's something," he says, "they're not going to 'fess up to willingly."

The United States, Carroll says, "is caught in the middle."

"We're supposedly protecting the Kurds," he says, "but we're cooperating with the Turks in ways that permit the Turks to exploit the Kurds' vulnerability. The whole thing doesn't make any sense."

To Ritter, however, it makes perfectly good sense once it is understood that U.S. policy toward the Kurds is driven not by the desire to protect them, but "to get them out of Turkey."

"Frankly speaking," Ritter says, "if all the Kurds had fled to Iran [after the Gulf War], we wouldn't have cared. But they fled to Turkey ... I'm pro-Turkish I've lived in Turkey I have a lot of respect for that nation and I understand where they're coming from with their Kurdish problem."

Nonetheless, he says, "I cannot support their solution."

According to Ritter, the Turks not only are conducting air strikes against the Kurds, they are also "manipulating the internal political dynamic in northern Turkey by forging alliances" between various Kurdish separatist movements "using Kurd against Kurd sort of how we used the Apaches to take on the Apaches."

Iraq, he says, has complained repeatedly to the United Nations about the air strikes but "no one does anything. We have a definite double standard."

Like Admiral Carroll, who says "it simply defies belief" that the United States could be ignorant of the Turkish air strikes, Ritter says he is convinced American policymakers understand precisely what the Turks are trying to accomplish.

"It's not just about the United States being aware of it," Ritter says, "it's about the U.S. supporting it."

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