Buried in the middle of a short July 14 news story about Turkey’s request that Iraq extradite two Islamists held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, The New York Times made a stunning allegation: Israeli intelligence officials are operating in Iraq.
The story, written by the Times correspondent in Istanbul, Sebnem Arsu, mentions in its third paragraph that “a [Turkish] Justice Ministry official said that Iraqi officials had yet to reply to the request, and that the return of the suspects might be delayed if American or Israeli intelligence agencies wanted to interrogate the men before they left Iraq.”
On Wednesday the Times appeared to be backpedaling from the allegation.
“The particular sentence probably should have been articulated more clearly. The source did not know for a fact that Israeli intelligence operates in Iraq,” said Rick Gladstone, the assignment editor on the Times’s foreign desk, in an interview with the Forward. He added that Arsu had told the paper that the Turkish source was talking hypothetically about possible reasons for the delay in extraditing the two Islamist suspects.
Gladstone said the Times has no plans to run a correction or clarification.
The two Turkish Islamists, Burhan Kus and Sadettin Akdas, were arrested by American troops in January, according to the Times. Turkey believes they had a key role in the November 2003 bombings of two synagogues, the British consulate and the branch of a British bank in Istanbul, the Turkish foreign minister said last week.
By claiming in passing that Israeli intelligence operatives were intervening alongside Americans in Iraq, the Times seemed to go even further, if unwittingly, then investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Last year, in an article in The New Yorker, Hersh claimed that Israel had established a significant presence in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan from where it was running covert operations in Iraq and neighboring Syria and Iran. But the Times report last week suggested that Israeli agents were working in coordination with American forces in central Iraq.
At the time, Israeli officials flatly denied Hersh’s claims.
When asked about the recent report in the Times, David Prince of the Israeli consulate in New York said, “We don’t know anything about this so we can’t comment on it.”
The issue of Israeli presence in Iraq is a sensitive one given the widespread belief in the Muslim world that America invaded Iraq on behalf of Israel. A few months ago, a senior Iraqi official, Midhat al-Alusi, was expelled from his party and his two sons killed after he traveled to Israel last fall. In addition, rumors circulated that Israelis had participated in or at least inspired the abusive interrogation of suspects at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Given the fact that the targets of the two suspected Islamists included Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Beth Israel synagogues, it would make sense for Israel to be interested in the suspects, said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress’s Council for World Jewry.
“It would be logical for countries that work together to defeat terrorism to cooperate,” said Rosen, who claims he has no knowledge about an Israeli intelligence presence in Iraq. “It would not be the first time Israel cooperates with an Arab country on those issues.”
Rosen was among several observers who noted that the sourcing of the allegation to a Turkish official was not incidental. Turkish officials have privately complained about Israel’s intelligence meddling in Iraqi Kurdistan, as most vividly illustrated in the Hersh piece last year. Turkey officials have repeatedly stressed their fear that the war in Iraq could eventually lead to the creation of an independent Kurdistan that would inflame Turkey’s own Kurdish minority.
A major Turkish news outlet, the daily Cumhuriyet, reported that a key source for the Hersh article, which cited three senior Turkish officials denouncing Israel’s actions, was Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.
Turkish officials denied the allegations at the time, but two sources familiar with the issue said they had heard confirmation that Gul was indeed the source from Turkish officials.
They added that Israel’s alleged role in Kurdistan was reportedly the real reason behind the tension between Israel and Turkey at the time of the New Yorker piece. Ankara then criticized Jerusalem for its strikes against Hamas leaders in Gaza, recalling its ambassador to Israel for consultations and canceling a planned visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Both countries have since mended fences, with Gul traveling to Israel in January and Erdogan making his first visit there in early May.
An official at the Turkish mission to the United Nations said he could not comment.