ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is stepping up humanitarian aid to northern Iraq, officials said on Friday, but looks unlikely to get involved in military action against advancing Islamist militants there unless its southern border with Iraq is directly threatened.
Turkey has a 370-km (230-mile) border with Iraq and has been alarmed by the advance of Islamic State fighters towards Arbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region which has until now served as a buffer for Turkey against the instability further south.
U.S. warplanes struck Iraq on Friday for the first time since American troops pulled out in 2011, hitting a mobile artillery piece used by the Sunni militants to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil.
Incirlik, a sprawling U.S. air base in southern Turkey, was not used in the strikes, Turkish officials said.
“Five trucks carrying aid to Iraq have hit the road today and they will go through the Habur border crossing on Sunday,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters, adding that they were carrying food, medicine, blankets and other basic goods.
The aid is destined for the oil city of Kirkuk, Arbil and the town of Dohuk on the Tigris river and will be distributed to members of the ethnic Turkmen and Yazidi minorities and others in need, the official said.
“It is not on our agenda at the moment to airdrop with our own planes,” another Turkish official said, adding Turkey’s most recent aid package two days ago was sent by land to Dohuk, from where it was distributed by land and air by local authorities.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that the stability of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region was “very important” to Turkey and that Ankara would do what it could to help the Kurds.
Asked if that assistance would go beyond humanitarian aid, Davutoglu said Turkey would “take all measures” to protect its borders but said the priority should be the formation of a new Iraqi government in Baghdad.
He said the sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, were partly responsible for sowing the seeds of radicalization among some Sunni Muslim communities.
“The first thing that should be done is to establish a new Iraqi government with a new Iraqi prime minister ... Without restructuring the politics in Baghdad it is difficult to solve the problems in the surrounding regions,” he said.
One factor likely to discourage NATO member Turkey from following the U.S. example in using military force against the Islamic State is that the militants are still holding 49 hostages seized from the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.
These include the consul general, special forces’ soldiers, diplomats and children.
Reporting by Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones