U.S. stops Turkish weapons smugglers

Soldiers caught trying to sneak grenades, rifles to Turkmens in north Iraq

Postwar Iraq

April 27, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KIRKUK, Iraq - Turkish special forces soldiers were caught trying to smuggle grenades, night-vision goggles and dozens of rifles into this oil-rich city in northern Iraq last week, U.S. military officials said yesterday. The officials said they believed that the weapons, which were hidden in an aid convoy, were bound for Turkmens living here.

Turkey has repeatedly said it may launch a military incursion into northern Iraq, noting what it says is abuse of Turkmens by Arabs and Kurds. Turkmens make up less than 5 percent of Iraq's population.

The weapons were discovered Wednesday when an aid convoy reached a U.S. checkpoint, officials said. U.S. soldiers, who had heard that Turkish special forces soldiers were trying to enter the city, questioned the men in the convoy.

"They were all in civilian clothes, and they didn't produce anything that they were authorized to be in the area," said a U.S. military official. "They identified themselves as Turkish special forces."

Equipment found

The Americans seized and then searched a half-dozen vehicles and found several dozen AK-47 assault rifles and other military gear, including a small number of U.S.-made M-4 rifles equipped with specialized sights and grenade launchers.

Night-vision goggles, radio scanners, pistols, and banners and flags of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the main Turkmen party in Iraq, were also found. About half of the two dozen men in the convoy were found to be Turkish special forces soldiers. U.S. soldiers questioned them, then sent them to the Turkish border.

Allegation denied

Turkmen representatives in Kirkuk said yesterday that the U.S. allegations were false. "That didn't happen," said an official outside their headquarters.

U.S. military officials, who have been trying to ease tensions in Kirkuk, reacted with frustration to the discovery. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens claim control of Kirkuk, a city that is believed to sit atop one of the largest oil reserves in the world. All of the groups are armed.

"As we are trying to maintain stability, we don't need an outside force coming in and stirring things up," one official said.

Rising presence

The official said the attempt to smuggle in the weapons came as the Turkmen presence appeared to be increasing in the city.

Turkmen militia wearing new uniforms and carrying new Kalashnikov rifles have been seen in Kirkuk in recent days.

Col. William Mayville, commander of U.S. forces in Kirkuk, said he had been urging Turkmen leaders to try to re-establish relations with the community around them.

Bitter relations

Relations have been bitter between the Turkmens and the Kurds, who have maintained self-rule in northern Iraq for more than a decade under U.S. protection.

Turkish officials accuse the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish parties, of carrying out arson attacks against Turkmen residents. Party officials deny the charge.

In the weeks since Kirkuk fell to U.S.-led forces, freshly painted Turkmen political offices have sprung up across the city. A Turkmen group is building a radio and television station on the southern edge of the city.

"They were a group that was a minority that did suffer under Saddam Hussein," Mayville said. "I think it's time for the Turkmen here to re-evaluate their relationships."

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