ANKARA, Turkey — There "is an agreement in principle" for Turkey to play a role in the battle to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday, expressing optimism that friction between the Turks and Iraqis can be worked out.
Speaking to reporters after finishing up meetings with top Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Carter said he believes Turkey should play a role in the Mosul battle, but that any final decisions would need Iraqi approval.
Questions remain as to whether the Iraqis would allow Turkey to continue to play a military role in Iraq — something Baghdad has opposed.
"I'm pretty confident — on the basis of all the conversations we've had — that we'll be able to work through those practicalities in a way that takes care of the sensitivities of all of the parties," Carter told reporters traveling with him. He said Turkey has had a historic role in the region and it will "appropriately have a role in the counter-ISIL campaign in both Syria and Iraq."
Carter's comments came amid escalating tensions between Turkey and Iraq, over Turkish military operations in northern Iraq. And the divide has only grown in recent days as the operation to retake Mosul began to take shape.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Erdogan have traded insults, and earlier this week thousands of followers of a Shiite cleric rallied outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, calling for an end to the Turkish "occupation" in northern Iraq.
They were referring to the presence of some 500 Turkish troops at a base north of Mosul who have been training Sunni and Kurdish fighters since last December. Baghdad says the troops are there without permission and has called on them to withdraw. Ankara has refused, and insists it will play a role in liberating the city.
The Turkish troops are training Kurdish forces loyal to Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani.
Carter said he believes there are things that Turkey could do that would be very productive for the war effort. And he said Iraq "understands that Turkey is a member of the counter-ISIL coalition (and) will play a role in counter-ISIL operations in Iraq. And, secondly, that Turkey since it neighbors the region of Mosul has an interest in the ultimate outcome in Mosul."
A senior defense official said the U.S. is hoping to arrange a meeting between the Turks and the Iraqis in the next week, and that Turkey could offer humanitarian assistance, medical aid and other non-military contributions. The official was not authorized to talk about the ongoing discussions publicly, so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Carter arrived in Turkey for a short visit on Friday, shuttling quickly to sessions with Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Turkey's Defense Minister Fikri Isik. He also visited the nation's Parliament building that was bombed during the unsuccessful coup earlier this year.
Before the meetings, Carter made it clear that Iraqi sovereignty would be a key topic in the meetings.
"We've long had discussions with everyone about this — about respect for Iraqi sovereignty in the course of the conduct of the counter-ISIL campaign," Carter said. "It's very important for all the members of the counter-ISIL campaign to participate in that integrated way. Will I be talking with the Turks about that? Absolutely."
The key is to "keep everybody focused on the object here which is to defeat ISIL," Carter said, using another acronym for the Islamic State, "because that is a threat to all three of us."
At the same time, the U.S. is also looking into reports that Turkish jets and artillery struck Syrian Kurds in northern Syria on Thursday, killing as many as 200.
Carter said he has few details on the incident, and questions remain about the casualty total and whether or not the Kurdish forces were ones backed by the U.S.
The Syrian Kurdish forces have been a source of tension between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. The U.S. considers the militia group — the People's Protection Units or YPG — to be the most effective force in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Turkey says it's an extension of its own outlawed Kurdish militants who have carried out a series of deadly attacks in Turkey in the past and considers it to be a terrorist organization.
According to one Turkish official, Defense Minister Isiki told Carter that Turkey expects the Syrian Kurdish militia will leave the Syrian town of Manbij and move east of the Euphrates river as promised.
"We cannot trust the words of terror organizations; we cannot know what the (Kurdish militants) will do tomorrow," a Turkish official quoted Isik as telling Carter. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the conversation publicly.