Iraq has demanded an apology from Turkey over a drone strike that targeted a Syrian Kurdish leader who is a key western ally in the fight against Islamic State.
Iraq’s president on Saturday called the attack on Friday a “flagrant aggression on Iraq and its sovereignty”.
“In this regard we call on the Turkish government to take responsibility and present an official apology,” Iraq’s presidency said in a statement, adding that Ankara had no legal justification to continue “terrorising civilians under the pretext that forces hostile to it are present on Iraqi soil”.
The strike reportedly targeted Mazloum Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia which controls large parts of northeastern Syria. The US arms and trains the SDF in its campaign against Isis and keeps about 800 troops in Syria to support the SDF.
The SDF confirmed Abdi’s presence at the airport in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region at the time of the attack, having withheld the information until he returned home safely on Saturday.
“We strongly condemn the targeting of Sulaimaniya airport by Turkey,” Abdi tweeted Saturday.
In an interview with the Kurdish North press agency, Abdi said that he had been travelling in a convoy that also included US and coalition troops.
When asked the reason for his trip, he said the SDF have “joint operations” with Iraqi and Kurdish anti-terrorism forces that the US-led anti-Isis coalition knows about. A spokesman for US Central Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Abdi said the attack is “a clear message from the Turks that they are bothered and oppose our international relations and they want to damage them”.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Turkey regularly conducts air and small-scale land operations in northern Iraq, home to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. The army has also staged three full-scale incursions into Syria since 2016 to fight the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation in Europe and the US. But across the border in Syria, the YPG are the dominant force in the SDF. Washington’s support for the SDF has been a long-running point of friction between the Nato allies.
Friday’s drone strike comes days after Turkey closed its airspace to flights to and from the Sulaimaniya airport until July 3, citing an alleged increase in PKK activity and its “infiltration” of the airport.
That decision followed a helicopter crash last month which killed nine Kurdish militants who were on board. The incident infuriated Ankara over claims the PKK was in possession of helicopters.
The SDF later said it lost eight fighters and one commander when the two helicopters crashed due to bad weather. The SDF said those fighters had been in Iraq for an “exchange of expertise” in the fight against Islamic State.
Additional reporting by Adam Samson in Ankara.