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Dunford in Turkey for talks with US troops and Turkish leaders

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to Col. John Walker, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing, after arriving at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Sunday, July 31, 2016.

DOMINIQUE A. PINEIRO/U.S. NAVY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2016

America’s top military officer met with U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base Monday ahead of talks with top Turkish officials in an effort to ease the strained relations between the two strategic partners.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Turkey after a stop in Iraq, where U.S. forces are playing a key support role in coalition efforts to reclaim territory from the Islamic State group.

In Turkey, Dunford was to deliver a message of solidarity with Turkey in the wake of the attempted coup two weeks ago, said Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, Dunford’s spokesman.

“He will deliver messages condemning in the strongest terms the recent coup attempt and reaffirming the importance of our enduring partnership for regional security as symbolized by coalition operations out of Incirlik in the counter-ISIL fight,” Hicks said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

The spokesman said that Dunford would also underline the importance of Turkey’s contributions to both the counter-Islamic State coalition and NATO alliances.

Dunford was to meet with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Gen. Hulusi Akar, chief of the Turkish general staff, Hicks said.

Dunford’s stop in Turkey comes during a difficult period in relations between the two countries. In recent days, protesters have burned American flags outside Incirlik, calling on the U.S. military to leave the base amid accusations that U.S. officials have quietly backed the failed mutiny. U.S. leaders have repeatedly denied this and have confirmed their support ofTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

But Erdogan has voiced harsh criticism of the United States, including Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel. The president accused Votel of expressing sympathy for the mutineers, a claim Votel rejected.

In addition, Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish authorities say was behind the coup attempt. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, has denied the charges.

Washington says it will consider Turkey’s request for extradition. Some analysts have warned that a failure to turn over Gulen would further harm Turkish-U.S. relations and possibly prompt Ankara to reconsider U.S. access to Incirlik.

Incirlik Air Base, the Turkish-owned facility on the outskirts of the southern city of Adana, has enabled the U.S. to shorten flight times to targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkey approved U.S. combat missions from Incirlik in the summer of 2015 after having rejected previous U.S. requests to conduct such operations.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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