By Craig Whitlock
ANKARA, Turkey – American troops are almost gone from Iraq, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. military will cease its operations there entirely.
Baghdad has given Washington permission to keep flying Predator drones on surveillance missions over northern Iraq, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday. The unmanned airplanes, which operate out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, are being used to look for fighters from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.
The U.S. military had flown the Predators on anti-PKK missions since 2007 from Iraqi bases, but had to move them out of the country this fall as part of the American withdrawal from Iraq. U.S. defense officials had previously acknowledged relocating the drones to Turkey, but Panetta’s statement was the first confirmation that they were still authorized to fly in Iraqi airspace.
The Kurdish group, which is fighting to create an autonomous enclave in Turkey, has launched cross-border attacks from its camps in northern Iraq for years. Turkey has responded with airstrikes and artillery attacks and has also sent ground troops into Iraq, further destabilizing a volatile area.
The U.S. government officially labels the PKK a terrorist organization, although the group has not targeted American interests. Turkey is a key NATO ally of the United States.
The Predators based at Incirlik are unarmed. The U.S. military shares video surveillance from the planes with the Turkey, which considers the data a valuable tool for its anti-PKK operations.
The military assistance has been a key factor in strengthening U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years. Panetta said he stressed to President Abdullah Gul and Turkish military leaders that Washington’s efforts to counter the PKK would not end after the United States pulls out of Iraq this month.
“I made very clear the United States will continue to assist Turkey in confronting this threat,” Panetta told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital.