Initial information coming from security sources indicate that Turkey’s Fırtına howitzer batteries were used in the recent bombing of Zakho in northern Iraq, resulting in multiple civilian casualties.
Located in the Duhok Governorate, the city of Zakho was the scene of a bombardment that killed nine civilians, two of whom were minors, and injured 23 others, prompting a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Iraq. While Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have held Turkey accountable for the deaths, Ankara has claimed that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was behind the attack. Security sources have confirmed that the shots were indeed fired by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), while specifying that the civilians were not hit intentionally.
According to information provided by sources, the explosions in the picnic area in Zakho were the result of shells fired from 155 mm Fırtına howitzers by the 48th Border Brigade operating under Turkey’s 23rd Infantry Division. Sources suggest that the shots hit the area accidentally as they were intended for somewhere else, underlining that as part of its cross-border offensive against the PKK, Turkey has been actively engaging a number of artillery batteries across the border with Iraq. They have pointed out the TSK’s relatively silent stance after the incident.
Artillery batteries deployed in three positions
The Turkish military has two battalions in the region, located at Gülyazı, Şenoba and Andaç on the Turkish side of the border. These units are equipped with 105, 155 and 203 mm Fırtına howitzers for border protection against potential PKK infiltrations. The batteries are located 11 kilometers from the picnic area where the civilian deaths occurred, meaning that the victims were within range. Sources indicate that the shells were shot from these batteries.
Iraqi sources point to 155 mm guns
The first official statement confirming this assessment came from the Iraqi side. Hoshyar Zebari, former foreign minister and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), said the attack was carried out with 155 mm artillery, calling for the establishment of a joint investigative committee by Turkey and the KRG.
Following the incident, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani said: “We completely reject the bombardments and the fighting between the Turkish army and PKK militants at the border, which have become more and more frequent and which we find unacceptable. These clashes undermine the stability and security of the Kurdistan region and Iraq’s international borders. The fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK must end and stop causing death and destruction in the border region.”
Sources say Ankara and Erbil enjoy good economic and political relations and that the Barzani administration is unlikely to blame Turkey for an attack that is not carried out by the TSK.
Turkish defense ministry trying to de-escalate
Information coming from the Turkish side suggests that the Ministry of Defense has been attempting to establish contact with Iraqi authorities in order to reduce tensions. The ministry has reportedly asked Fuad Hussein to tone down the harsh Iraqi statements. Hussein is among Iraqi officials with strong ties to Ankara and is known for his vocal opposition to the PKK’s presence in the country. Following the bombardment Hussein was among the first to arrive at the scene, where he made relatively strong remarks.
Sources also point out the TSK’s stance. In the past, the PKK repeatedly blamed Turkey for the death of civilians, and the TSK’s reaction was usually strong. Yet the TSK has been silent about the latest incident.The only official Turkish statement came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sources claim that the Turkish side is looking to stave off controversy through silent diplomacy and compensation. Baghdad, on the other hand, expects Ankara to openly apologize and withdraw its military from Iraqi soil.
While Turkey has been trying to keep it low key, Iraq has been giving it high-level attention. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi convened a meeting on Zakho in Baghdad, which brought together President Barham Salih and Parliament Speaker Mohamed Halbousi as well as political party and faction leaders and representatives.
According to a statement released by the Iraqi Prime Ministry, Al-Kadhimi has instructed the military to be “on full alert” against potential assaults on sovereign territory.
Impossibility of discussing the issue inside Turkey
The subject is taboo inside Turkey. With the exception of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which mainly represents the Kurdish vote, all opposition parties have kept their silence. The Diyarbakır Bar Association has come under immense pressure after attempting to take legal action over the incident. After the bar announced that it was going to file criminal complaints against officials who ordered the bombing, Diyarbakır prosecutors launched an investigation into the bar’s administration. The bar also announced that it has received dozens of threats.
Reminiscent of a recent trauma
On the night of Dec. 28, 2011, TSK jets carried out strikes in the Uludere district of Şırnak province upon intelligence that a group of PKK fighters were about to infiltrate Turkey across the border with Iraq. It was revealed the next day that the 34 people who died as a result of the strikes were not PKK militants but villagers carrying contraband. Then-Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin accused the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and said, “The incident in Uludere is the unfortunate consequence of several intel reports emanating from MİT.” The Uludere strikes have for many years been debated. Some have alleged that they was planned by MİT, which intentionally supplied false intelligence so that the military would suffer damage to its reputation and eventually lose its central position in the Turkish state apparatus. Mehmet Baransu, a journalist who has published intel reports pertaining to the incident, has been imprisoned for more than six years, while the TSK is far from having the political influence it used to enjoy.
The pro-Kurdish HDP has described the incident as a “second Uludere.” Blamed by Turkey, the PKK announced that it had no presence in the vicinity of the bombarded picnic area and that it could not possibly have been the target of the shots. Whether the Zakho bombing was the result of false intel or inaccurate artillery fire remains unclear. The only thing Turkey is insisting is that civilians were definitely not targeted.