An attack by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants on a military base in northern Iraq shows Turkey’s decision to deploy troops there was justified, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday, suggesting Russia was stirring up a row over the issue.
Erdoğan told reporters in İstanbul that 18 ISIL militants were killed but no Turkish soldiers were harmed in the attack at the Bashiqa base in Iraq’s Nineveh province.
Erdoğan said the attack vindicated Turkey’s concerns and its decision to deploy additional forces to the Bashiqa camp near Mosul, from where Ankara later withdrew some of its forces in accordance with a demand made by the Iraqi government.
“This incident justifies our actions in Bashiqa. It is clear that with our armed soldiers there, our officers conducting training are prepared for anything at any time,” he told reporters in İstanbul.
The head of the Sunni militia said his fighters and Turkish forces launched a joint “pre-emptive” attack on ISIL around 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the base on Wednesday because the militants were preparing to launch rockets from the area.
“Our forces managed to detect the position of these rockets, so they conducted a preemptive strike,” Atheel al-Nujaifi, former governor of the nearby ISIL-controlled city of Mosul, told Reuters.
“This operation was ended without a single rocket being launched at the camp,” he said.
Erdoğan 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,” Erdoğan said.
Turkey, he said, was acting in line with international law.
Earlier in the day, Turkish troops repelled an ISIL attack on Bashiqa base in northern Iraq, Turkish military sources told the media on Friday.
Nujaifi said the international coalition bombing ISIL 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.
The camp in Iraq’s Nineveh province, to which Sunni Muslim power Turkey has historic ties, is situated around 140 kilometers (90 miles) south of the Turkish border.
Turkey deployed a force protection unit of around 150 troops last month citing heightened security risks near Bashiqa, where its troops are training an Iraqi militia to fight ISIL, sparking a diplomatic row.
Iraq objected to the deployment and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi accused Ankara last week of failing to respect an agreement to withdraw the troops. Iraq’s foreign minister warned Baghdad could resort to military action if forced.
US President Barack Obama told Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi in a phone call on Wednesday that Turkey should withdraw all troops whose presence had not been authorized by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the White House said in a statement.
Iraqi security forces have had only a limited presence in Nineveh province, where the camp is located, since collapsing in June 2014 in the face of a lightning advance by ISIL.
Ankara has acknowledged there was a “miscommunication” with Baghdad over the deployment.
It later withdrew some troops to another base inside the nearby autonomous Kurdistan region and said it would continue to pull out of Nineveh province, but President Erdoğan has ruled out a full withdrawal.
The camp came under attack twice last month. Militants linked with ISIL launched a rocket attack, killing several members of the Iraqi army and injuring several Turkish soldiers. The Turkish military said at the time that four soldiers suffered light wounds and were taken to a hospital in Turkey’s southeastern province of Şırnak, near the Iraqi border.
Erdoğan slams Russia over striking Turkmens in Syria
Erdoğan renewed his sharp criticism of the Russian military campaign in Syria, accusing Russian forces of deliberately targeting non-ISIL forces in northern Syria, mainly Turkmens.
“You know Russia says it is fighting against ISIL. No. They are hitting non-ISIL rebel groups, moderate ones, and also targeting our Turkmen brethren. A group of representatives from the Bayırbucak Turkmens recently visited me and told me of their suffering,” Erdoğan told reporters.
Turkey and Russia are backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, with Moscow firmly committed to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power while Ankara is clamoring for a leadership change in Syria, claiming that Assad has lost his legitimacy after committing large-scale atrocities against his own people.
Apart from divergent positions in the protracted Syrian crisis, Turkish-Russian relations sharply deteriorated after Turkey downed a Russian bomber jet on Nov. 24, stirring Russian economic sanctions against Turkey.
It also fueled tension across Turkey-Syria border as Russia placed its cutting-edge S-400 air defense missile system, rendering Syrian airspace a virtual no-fly zone for Turkish jets. The simmering tension prompted NATO to reinforce Turkey’s air defenses after a summit late in December.