Second car bomb in a month kills 37 in Turkish capital, Ankara


A car bomb tore through a crowded transport hub in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Sunday, killing at least 37 people and wounding 125 in the second such attack in the administrative heart of the city in under a month.

The blast, which could be heard several kilometres away, sent burning debris showering down over an area a few hundred metres (yards) from the Justice and Interior Ministries, a top courthouse, and the former office of the prime minister.

“These attacks, which threaten our country's integrity and our nation's unity and solidarity, do not weaken our resolve in fighting terrorism but bolster our determination,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement.

Two senior security officials told Reuters the first findings suggested that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy, or an affiliated group, was responsible.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the name of the group behind the attack would likely be announced on Monday after initial investigations were completed.

“Tonight, civilian citizens waiting at a bus stop were targeted in a terrorist attack with a bomb-laden car,” Ala told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the head of the intelligence agency and security chiefs.

“Significant findings have been made, but the organisation behind this will be announced once the investigation has been finalised,” he said.

NATO member Turkey faces multiple security threats. As part of a U.S.-led coalition, it is fighting Islamic State in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. It is also battling PKK militants in its southeast, where a 2-1/2-year ceasefire collapsed last July, triggering the worst violence since the 1990s.

The bombing came two days after the U.S. Embassy issued a warning that there was information regarding a potential attack on government buildings in the Bahcelievler area of Ankara, just a few km (miles) away from the blast site.

The United States condemned the attack, saying in a White House National Security Council statement: “This horrific act is only the most recent of many terrorist attacks perpetrated against the Turkish people. The United States stands together with Turkey, a NATO ally and valued partner, as we confront the scourge of terrorism.”

Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said 30 of those killed had died at the scene, while the four others died in hospital. At least one or two of the dead were attackers, he said, and 19 of the 125 wounded were in critical condition.

PELLETS AND NAILS

One of the security officials said the car used in the attack was a BMW driven from Viransehir, a town in the largely Kurdish southeast, and that the PKK and the affiliated Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) appeared to be responsible.

TAK claimed responsibility for the previous car bombing, just a few blocks away, on Feb. 17. That attack targeted a military bus as it waited at traffic lights, and killed 29 people, most of them soldiers, near the military headquarters, parliament and other key government institutions.

A police source said there appeared to have been two attackers, one a man and the other a woman, whose severed hand was found 300 metres from the blast site.

The explosives were the same kind as those used on Feb. 17 and the bomb had been reinforced with pellets and nails to cause maximum damage, the source told Reuters.

The pro-Kurdish opposition HDP, parliament's third largest party, which Erdogan accuses of being an extension of the PKK, condemned what it described as a “savage attack”.

State broadcaster TRT said the car had exploded at a major transport hub, hitting a bus carrying some 20 people near the central Guven Park and Kizilay Square at 6:43 p.m. (1643 GMT).

An Ankara court ordered a ban on access to Facebook, Twitter and other sites in Turkey after images from the bombing were shared on social media, broadcasters CNN Turk and NTV reported.

SECURITY THREATS

World leaders joined in condemning the bombing. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “appalled,” while French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described it as a “cowardly attack”. Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as “inhuman,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.

“There can be no justification for such heinous acts of violence. All NATO allies stand in solidarity with Turkey, resolute in our determination to fight terrorism in all its forms,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the country's ambassador to Turkey, James Larsen, was in a car at an intersection 20 metres from where the bomb was detonated.

“It really does bring it home to us that a terrorist attack can take place at any time, anywhere,” Bishop told Nine Network television while on a diplomatic trip to Fiji. “We utterly condemn these barbaric attacks on civilian populations.”

“It was an appalling thing for him to witness, being so close, but he's fine,” she added of the ambassador.

Turkey sees the unrest in its largely Kurdish southeast as deeply linked to events in northern Syria, where the Kurdish YPG militia has been seizing territory as it fights both Islamic State and rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad.

Ankara fears those gains will stoke separatist ambitions among its own Kurds and has long argued that the YPG and PKK have close ideological and operational ties.

In its armed campaign in Turkey, the PKK has historically struck directly at the security forces and says that it does not target civilians. A direct claim of responsibility for Sunday's bombing would indicate a major tactical shift.

Islamic State militants have been blamed for at least four bomb attacks on Turkey since June 2015, including a suicide bombing that killed 10 German tourists in the historic heart of Istanbul in January. Local jihadist groups and leftist radicals have also staged attacks in Turkey in the past. 

Turkey Incursion Into Iraq Intensifies


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Turkey’s recent deployment of troops and tanks into northern Iraq has caused a major diplomatic row between Ankara and Baghdad, but experts say Turkish forces are there to stay.

“Honestly speaking there is not much Baghdad can do,” Aydın Selcen, the former Turkish consul to Erbil [capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq] told The Media Line.

On December 4, Turkey sent at least 150 soldiers and 20 to 25 tanks to a military facility in the small Kurdish Iraqi town of Bashiqa, 19 miles north of Mosul, where it has been assisting in the training of Iraqi forces

The Islamic State (ISIS) captured the Sunni-majority city of Mosul (population about 1.5 million) in a shocking lightning offensive in June of last year. Plans to retake the city stalled, though Kurdish forces have made recent progress in cutting off its supply routes.

Hüseyin Bağcı, head of Middle Eastern Technical University’s international relations department, says the primary goal of Turkey’s armed forces in northern Iraq is still countering the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)

“Turkey’s main enemy is not ISIS, but the PKK,” Professor Bağcı told The Media Line.

Akın Ünver, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, says Turkey’s deployment is also about regaining lost prestige. In June 2014, ISIS overran Turkey’s consulate in Mosul and took 49 Turkish citizens hostage, releasing them the following September.

“It was actually one of the biggest national security and intelligence failures,” Ünver tells The Media Line. “They want to rectify that mistake. There’s a prestige issue there.”

Baghdad says the Turkish troops don’t have permission to be there and must leave immediately, calling the situation a “crisis” and threatening to resort to the United Nations.

Powerful members of the Iraqi parliament have called for military strikes against the Turkish forces, though such a drastic measure is unlikely.

Ankara claims that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself invited the Turkish troops. It refuses to withdraw its deployment but has pledged to not send reinforcements.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the troops were needed to protect Turkey’s already present forces in Iraq from ISIS fighters, to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS, and to maintain stability in the region.

Washington, which has been leading air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for over a year says it doesn’t support any military deployments in Iraq without Baghdad’s consent. But Washington too is unlikely to antagonize Ankara.

Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous KRG that currently controls Bashiqa, welcomed the Turkish troops and said he signed the agreement for their deployment on November 2.

Selcen, Turkey’s former consul to Erbil, says that the deployment shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is, he says, merely a reinforcement of Turkish forces that have been in Iraq for decades.

Turkish military trainers have been working with Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen fighters in Bashiqa for about two years. To counter militants from the PKK, that Ankara considers its enemy, Turkey has also maintained military units, including heavy armor, throughout northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Selcen says the latest reinforcements have transformed Bashiqa into a permanent forward operating base for Turkey, but added that its soldiers have no offensive purpose, even in an expected assault on Mosul. “That would be stretching reality a bit.”

“It’s a signal,” he said. “A political message to all parties interested. To Erbil, it means, ‘we are with you.’ To Baghdad, it means more or less ‘we don’t care much about what you say.’ To Tehran and Moscow it means in a now-unified war theatre in Syria and Iraq, ‘you are not on your own, we are here too.’ To Washington it says […] ‘we are allies with you in this but we are also able to move when need be according to our own national interests.’”

Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Program, says that Baghdad has only now decided to voice its concern at Turkey’s long-time presence in its northern territories because it is pressured by Russia and Iran, each vying for influence in the country.

“This is in my view a coordinated Iranian-Russian pushback,” he told The Media Line. “They have gone to the government in Baghdad and told them to stand up to the Turks.”

Russia is still furious about Turkey’s downing of an SU-24 jet on November 24, after the aircraft allegedly entered Turkish airspace.

However, Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, says that Shia-dominated Baghdad views Turkey negatively regardless of Russian or Iranian influence.

“There is overwhelming, near-unanimous opposition [to Turkey] on the Shia street,” Sowell told the Media Line, speaking from Ottawa.

Sowell says there was never a formal agreement between Ankara and Baghdad allowing Turkish forces entry.

He believes the friction between the two countries is not only sectarian (Turkey is majority-Sunni and Iraq majority Shia) but also a consequence of Turkey’s support for the KRG and the widely-believed rumor that Ankara supports ISIS.

Much to Baghdad’s unhappiness, the KRG enjoys significant autonomy and openly hopes for independence from Iraq.

Turkey and the KRG have enjoyed very good relations at least since 2010, when Ankara established a consulate in Erbil.

“Erbil right now is essentially a colony of Turkey,” Sowell says. “The only reason it’s able to function at all is because the Turks keep loaning them money.” Erbil is also only able to export oil independently of Baghdad through Turkey.

Ankara is using its Bashiqa base to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces and support an anti-Baghdad Sunni Arab militia.

Sowell says the only force strong enough to retake Mosul are the Iraqi Armed Forces, possibly with the assistance of Shia militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

However, Baghdad’s army has proven itself unwilling to take casualties and is notoriously disorganized. Furthermore, it can only reach Mosul by crossing through territory held by the KRG—requiring the acquiescence of President Barzani.

Former consul Selcen disagrees.

“You cannot ‘liberate’ that kind of a [large Sunni] city with Shia forces or the so-called national Iraqi army. It’s up to the Mosul Arabs to get rid of ISIL there,” he says.

Ünver, the international relations professor at Kadir Has University, agrees that any kind of Shia force retaking Mosul could end in disaster.

“If a Shiite group comes in and acts like a bull in a china-shop and starts killing Sunni civilians, that’s going to create even more tensions, which feeds into the whole ISIS narrative of being the only ones who can defend Sunnis,” he says.

From Ünver’s point of view, the Peshmerga should be armed and take Mosul instead. He considers a recent vote in the US House Foreign Affairs Committee allowing Washington to directly arm the Peshmerga without going through Baghdad is a significant development.

According to Ünver, retaking Mosul is likely to be very difficult because of the large number of civilians in the city, who ISIS does not in general allow to flee. Airstrikes would therefore be impossible without significant civilian casualties.

“Basically, ISIS is forcing whoever is going to retake Mosul into a street-by-street, building-by-building Stalingrad type of war.”

On Thursday, Turkish National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu traveled to Baghdad.

On the same day, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that between Turkey, the US, and KRG officials will meet on December 21.

‘Terrorists’ help U.S. in battle against Islamic State in Iraq


Washington has acquired an unlikely ally in its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq – a group of fighters it formally classifies as terrorists.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), condemned for its three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, says it played a decisive role in blunting the militants' sweep through Iraq, which triggered U.S. air strikes to halt their advance.

“This war will continue until we finish off the Islamic State,” said Rojhat, a PKK fighter speaking from a hospital bed in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq.

The involvement of the PKK has consequences not only for rival Kurdish factions who failed to stop the Islamic State's advance, but also for Turkey and the international community, which is being lobbied by the PKK to drop the terrorist tag.

Rojhat, 33, was wounded for a third time in the battle to retake the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur from the Islamic State after the militants – deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda – routed the region's vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The first two times he was fighting Turkish forces, part of a conflict which killed 40,000 people between its beginnings in 1984 with demands for Kurdish independence from Turkey and a ceasefire in March 2013.

His role highlights the challenge the PKK represents for Ankara, which still views it as terrorist but feels seriously threatened by the Islamic State, which has seized dozens of its citizens and decapitated an American hostage this week.

Thanks to Rojhat and his comrades-in-arms, residents of Makhmur who fled in terror at an onslaught that threatened Arbil, 60 km (40 miles) away, are now returning to assess the damage.

They have already sprayed over graffiti that reads: “the Islamic State is here to stay”.

“This is not just about Makhmur: this is about Kurdistan,” said PKK commander Sadiq Goyi, seated beneath a banner of the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, referring to Kurdish-inhabited land in Syria and Iran as well as Turkey and Iraq.

“Islamic State is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere”.

An armed sister group of the PKK – People's Defense Units (YPG) – has carved out an autonomous zone in Syria's northeast, successfully fending off attacks by IS militants who have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Iraq.

When the militants overran peshmerga positions in northwestern Iraq, YPG fighters crossed over from Syria and evacuated thousands of minority Yazidis left stranded on a mountain with scant food and water.

“The PKK is our hero,” said 26-year-old Hussein, one of hundreds of Yazidis being trained by YPG fighters at several camps inside Syria to fight the Islamic State.

PKK commanders say guerrillas have been dispatched to the front line in the cities of Kirkuk and Jalawla as well. They declined to give numbers and fierce fighting makes their statements hard to verify.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

Turkish security forces began clearing villages suspected of sympathizing with the PKK during the 1990s, displacing thousands of Kurds, some of whom fled to Iraq and eventually settled in a camp in Makhmur, recently turned into a base for PKK guerrillas.

The word “Apo”, nickname for Ocalan, is scrawled on walls around the camp, which held more than 10,000 residents until the Islamic State's incursion.

A lone pair of socks still dangles from a washing line and unpicked grapes have begun to shrivel on the vine. The thud of artillery can be heard from the new front line with the Islamic state, several kilometers away.

The militants' surge towards Kurdistan destroyed the aura of invincibility surrounding the region's peshmerga forces, which had not fought for years and ultimately proved no match for fighters armed with weapons plundered from the Iraqi army.

PKK commanders however say the militants' main weapon is fear: “They are waging psychological warfare,” Goyi said. “Islamic State are not as powerful as they're thought to be”.

The PKK's newfound role may prove most worrying to its historic competitor, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The two have long vied for leadership of the Kurdish community across the borders of Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq.

With Kurdish forces from all four countries fighting the same enemy for the first time, for now at least, PKK guerillas and peshmerga stand side by side at checkpoints on the road to Makhmur. Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and also head of the KDP visited the camp himself to thank PKK commanders for their assistance.

But tensions are not far beneath the surface.

A senior KDP official said the PKK's involvement would discourage the international community from providing the Kurds with advanced weapons to match Islamic State's arsenal. “We don't need them,” he said of the PKK, accusing it of seeking to discredit the KDP.

The wounded guerrilla Rojhat said the PKK was more organized and disciplined than the peshmerga, and its tactics better suited to fighting Islamic State, even without the kind of military hardware Iraqi Kurds are seeking.

“This is how we fought the Turkish army for years,” Rojhat said. “War is an act of faith”.

“NO NEED TO PANIC”

Ankara has made little comment on the latest conflict in Iraq, smarting from allegations, which it firmly denies, that its support for Sunni opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad helped the Islamic State to grow and fearing for the fate of dozens of its citizens the militants have captured.

But Turkish officials played down concern the PKK would be embolded by its role in Iraq into stirring unrest in Turkey, seeing the fight against Islamic State as a separate issue from their struggle with Ankara for Kurdish rights.

“In Iraq there is a crisis and the PKK has engaged in this fight along with other elements there,” a senior Turkish government official told Reuters, adding that he did not see its engagement there as permanent.

“There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic,” the official said, asking for anonymity to allow him to speak more freely.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said this week the government may hold direct talks with the guerrillas, whose leader Ocalan is jailed on an island in the Marmara Sea. It proposes a plan involving the disarmament and reintegration of fighters into Turkish society.

The PKK see the new enemy and the old as very much linked, accusing Turkey of funding and sending Islamists to fight Kurds on their behalf in Syria, allegations Ankara denies.

But it has dropped its demand for a separate state for Kurds in Turkey's southeast in favor of devolution of power in each of the four countries across which Kurds are divided.

A European diplomat in Ankara said that the PKK would see its actions in Iraq, in particular its help in protecting members of the Yazidi community, as helping a diplomatic push to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of terrorist groups.

“It is quite paradoxical that an organization proscribed as a terrorist group by the EU appears to have played such a significant role (against Islamic State),” the diplomat said.

“They’re challenging the legal basis on which the EU proscribed them in the first place. They will see all of what has been happening in the past few days as grist to that mill.”

The European Union, however, would be highly unlikely to make any such move without Turkish agreement, he said.

“The Turks would be strongly against … We’re not at the stage where Turkey would be willing to contemplate anything like that, absolutely not.”

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