ANKARA, Jan 8, (Agencies): Turkish troops have killed 18 members of the Islamic State (IS) group after the jihadists launched an attack on a camp used to train Iraqi fighters outside the Iraqi city of Mosul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday. Turkish forces have been using the Bashiqa camp, just outside Mosul, to train local Iraqi fighters to retake the city from IS. “Eighteen members of the DAESH terror organisation who wanted to infiltrate Bashiqa were neutralised,” Erdogan said in televised comments after Friday prayers in Istanbul, using another name for the IS group. “None of our soldiers were wounded,” he added.
It was not immediately clear what nature of attack the jihadists had launched but Erdogan said that the Turkish forces were ready to repel any kind of assault. “Our armed forces there, our officers providing the training, are prepared for any kind of attacks or raids, or anything that happens,” said Erdogan.
The presence of the Turkish troops, while welcomed by the local authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan, has become a bone of contention with the central Iraqi government which angrily called for the Turkish troops to leave. Turkey in December withdrew some of the troops after also coming under US pressure. But it is unclear how many remain at the camp.
Erdogan said Friday the latest attack showed how right Turkey was to station armed forces at the camp to protect the Turkish officers who are providing the training for the Iraqis. “They are doing what needs to be done at the right time and will continue to do so,” he said.
Four Turkish soldiers were wounded on December 16 when IS jihadists fired mortars on the training camp, in an attack that also left two Iraqis dead. An attempted attack by Islamic State on a military base in northern Iraq shows Turkey’s decision to deploy troops there was justified, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, suggesting Russia was stirring up a row over the issue. Turkey deployed a force protection unit of around 150 troops to northern Iraq in December citing heightened security risks near Bashiqa, where its soldiers have been training an Iraqi militia to fight Islamic State. Baghdad objected to the troop deployment, however.
The head of the Sunni militia said his fighters and Turkish forces launched a joint “pre-emptive” attack on Islamic State around 10 km (6 miles) south of the base on Wednesday because the militants were building capacity to launch rockets at it. “Our forces managed to detect the position of these rockets so they conducted a preemptive strike,” Atheel al- Nujaifi, former governor of the nearby Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul, told Reuters. “This operation was ended without a single rocket being launched at the camp,” he said. Erdogan said no Turkish soldiers were harmed while 18 Islamic State militants were killed. “This incident shows what a correct step it was, the one regarding Bashiqa. It is clear that with our armed soldiers there, our officers giving the training are prepared for anything at any time,” he told reporters in Istanbul. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi accused Ankara last week of failing to respect an agreement to withdraw its troop deployment, while majority-Shi’ite Iraq’s foreign minister said Baghdad could resort to military action if forced. Erdogan said the problems over the deployment only started after Turkey’s relations with Russia soured in the wake of Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in November. “They (Iraq) asked us to train their soldiers and showed us this base as the venue. But as we see, afterwards, once there were problems between Russia and Turkey … these negative developments began,” Erdogan said.
Turkey, he said, was acting in line with international law. The camp in Iraq’s Nineveh province, to which Sunni Muslim power Turkey has historic ties, is situated around 140 km (90 miles) south of the Turkish border. Iraqi security forces have no presence in Nineveh after collapsing in June 2014 in the face of a lightning advance by Islamic State. Ankara has acknowledged there was a “miscommunication” with Baghdad over the troop deployment.
It later withdrew some soldiers to another base in the nearby autonomous Kurdistan region and said it would continue to pull out of Nineveh. But Erdogan has ruled out a full withdrawal. Nujaifi said the international coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria had supported ground forces with air strikes in Wednesday’s operation. The coalition said it launched four strikes near Mosul on Wednesday, but a spokesman said they were not in direct support of the Turkish-Iraqi operation at Bashiqa.
Foreign special forces have been carrying out raids on an Islamic State stronghold in northern Iraq ahead of an offensive planned later this year to retake Mosul, the largest city under the group’s control, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker said. Several attacks behind Islamic State lines around Hawija, 210 kms (130 miles) north of Baghdad, were carried out in recent weeks, Salim al-Jabouri told Reuters on Thursday.
Both the US and Iraqi military have denied that US forces have carried out military operations on the ground in Hawija since October, when US special forces rescued 69 Iraqis in a raid that killed one US commando. But Dubai-based al-Hadath TV and Iraqi media have reported at least half a dozen raids in and around Hawija since late December, led by US special forces. Washington said last month it was deploying a new force of around 100 special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against Islamic State there and in neighbouring Syria, without providing details.
US Army Col Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition bombing Islamic State, rejected the media reports this week, calling them “Iranian disinformation” aimed at distracting from Iraqi military gains against Islamic State elsewhere. He told Reuters that coalition forces in Iraq have not operated on the ground since the October operation.
Iraq’s defence minister last week also denied that the US had a role in such raids. Special operations in Hawija “have been repeated a second and third time … These operations are bearing fruit,” said Jabouri, Iraq’s most senior Sunni Arab official. “They eliminate the terrorists and free innocents, and for us it represents a positive development.” Jabouri said the raids were carried out “from time to time” and “supported by Iraqi forces” but did not specify whether the United States played a role or how many had occurred. The raids are “not direct ground attacks; they are operations targeting the dens of Daesh in important and sensitive areas,” Jabouri said, using an Arabic acronym for the group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. He said they were not enough to get rid of Islamic State but “are dealing them strong blows”. Local sources near Hawija, including a police officer and a municipal official, said last week that several raids had targeted Islamic State buildings including a courthouse and a police station, killing and capturing several militant leaders.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports. The October raid that included US special forces “is the only operation that we have spoken about and the only one that we will speak about,” Warren, the coalition spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. That operation, conducted with peshmerga commandos from northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, sparked outrage by powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Abadi’s own ruling coalition.
The militias, many of which fought US forces after the 2003 invasion, have decried the reports of more recent raids as US attempts to divide Iraq. Jabouri said such sensitivities were easing and described the raids as part of Baghdad’s strategy to retake Mosul, the city 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad where Islamic State declared its intention to establish a caliphate stretching across the border with Syria. Strategically located east of the road from Baghdad to Mosul and near the Kurdish-held oil region of Kirkuk, the region became an Islamic State stronghold when the ultra-hardline Sunni militants swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
The government has designated Mosul as the next target for Iraq’s armed forces after they retook the western city of Ramadi last month, the first major success of the US-trained force that initially fled in the face of Islamic State’s advance. Baghdad and the US-led coalition, though, have not made clear what path they intend to take to the capital of Nineveh province while most of Anbar province remains under Islamic State control. Jabouri said the advance to Mosul could not be rushed. “We cannot think of moving to another province until Anbar province is cleansed completely, which means there is an upcoming battle related to Falluja and what remains of it, and another one to the west of Ramadi,” said Jabouri. “At the same time there are preparations underway for Nineveh,” he added. Falluja, the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014, contains several hundreds militants and is encircled by Iraqi forces. An Islamic State jihadist killed his mother in a public square in the Syrian city of Raqa who begged him to leave the organisation, a monitor said Friday. Ali Saqr, 20, had reported his mother, Lina, to IS authorities in Raqa “because she tried to persuade him to leave IS and flee the city,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Authorities subsequently arrested the woman and accused her of apostasy, the monitoring group said. On Wednesday, she was shot to death by her son “in front of hundreds of people close to the mail service building in Raqa city,” the Observatory added. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the woman, who was in her forties, was living in the nearby town of Tabaqa but worked in Raqa city. The incident was widely condemned online by social media users. Raqa is the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s so-called “caliphate,” the territories it controls in Syria and Iraq where it imposes its harsh interpretations of Islamic law.