Turkey says its artillery playing role in Mosul, jets on standby

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish artillery fire has already played a role in the effort to drive Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul and four Turkish fighter jets are on standby to take part in air operations, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday.

A convoy of armoured vehicles belonging to international coalition troops drive during the operation against Islamic State militants outside the town of Naweran near Mosul, Iraq October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Largely Sunni Muslim Turkey and the Shi’ite-dominated central government in Iraq are at loggerheads about the presence of Turkish troops at a military camp in northern Iraq, and about Ankara’s demand to take part in the Mosul operation.

Turkey says it has a responsibility to protect ethnic Turkmens and Sunni Arabs in the area around Mosul, once part of the Ottoman empire. It fears Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, which the Iraqi army has relied on in the past, will be used in the campaign and stoke ethnic bloodletting.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said Baghdad does not want Turkey’s help and that the Turkish troops, tanks and artillery deployed at the Bashiqa military camp are there without his government’s authorization. Iraq says it is a sovereign nation that could handle the operation on its own.

“Our aim is to remove Daesh (Islamic State) from both Syria and Iraq. Iraq is a neighbor and friend for Turkey and for us the territorial integrity and stability in Iraq is as important as our own,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

He said Turkey was involved in the Mosul operation on “multiple fronts” and that 17 Islamic State militants had been killed by Turkish artillery fire since the offensive began.

“(Kurdish) Peshmerga forces we trained in northern Iraq are actively participating, and local forces that we support in Bashiqa, are actively fighting Daesh,” he said at a news conference with his visiting French counterpart.

“There are also four F-16 fighters jets on standby for an air operation as part of the international coalition, ready for air strikes. How they are deployed will depend on decisions by members of the coalition and our military.”

Turkish forces at Bashiqa had already killed more than 700 Islamic State fighters even before the Mosul operation, he said.

The region around Mosul is a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups - Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites - with Sunni Arabs the overwhelming majority.

Cavusoglu gave a warning that Turkey would not let the Kurdish PKK militant group gain more of a foothold. The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union, has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and has bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.

“They want to make in Sinjar a second Qandil,” Cavusoglu said, referring to the Yazidi territory of Sinjar, west of Mosul, where Islamic State committed some of its worst atrocities two years ago.

Kurdish fighters took back the region last year.

“We will ensure that the PKK is not able to organize itself in the north of Iraq. We will make sure this zone is a zone of security,” Cavusoglu said.

Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Richard Balmforth