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Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

NATO Expands Afghan War Into Pakistan

September 30, 2010 1 comment

On October 7 the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization military allies will begin the tenth year of their war in Afghanistan, over 3,000 miles from NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

The following month midterm elections will be held in the U.S. and NATO will hold a two-day summit in Portugal. The American administration is eager to achieve, or appear to have achieved, a foreign policy triumph in an effort to retain Democratic Party control of the Congress and NATO something to show for the longest and largest military mission in its 61 years of existence.

President Barack Obama has tripled the amount of American combat troops in Afghanistan to 100,000 and along with forces from other NATO member states and partner nations there are now over 150,000 foreign troops in the nation, the most ever stationed in the war-wracked country. 120,000 of those soldiers are now under the command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the most ever serving in a North Atlantic Alliance-led military operation. NATO Kosovo Force at its peak had 50,000 troops, but they entered the Serbian province after an almost three-month air war had ended.

The 120,000 NATO forces currently in theater – from 50 nations already with more pegged to provide troops – are at the center of the world’s longest-lasting and increasingly deadly hot war. NATO’s first ground war, its first combat operations in Asia.

Last year was the most lethal for the U.S and NATO in what is now a nine-year conflict and this year has already proven even more costly in terms of combat deaths. And there are three more months to go.

Washington and Brussels could decide to save face and end the fighting through some combination of an internal political settlement and a true international peacekeeping arrangement – rather than the subversion of the International Security Assistance Force that was established by a United Nations mandate in December of 2001 but which is now the Pentagon’s and NATO’s vehicle for waging war in Afghanistan. And in neighboring Pakistan.

But the military metaphysic prevalent in Washington over the past 65 years will allow for nothing other than what is seen as victory, with a “Who lost Afghanistan?” legacy tarnishing the president who fails to secure it and the party to which he belongs being branded half-hearted and defeatist.

As for NATO, the Strategic Concept to be adopted in November is predicated upon the bloc’s expansion into a 21st century global expeditionary force for which Afghanistan is the test case. A NATO that loses Afghanistan, that loses in Afghanistan, will be viewed more critically by the populations of its European member states that have sacrificed their sons and daughters at the altar of NATO’s international ambitions. In the words of then-Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer six years ago: “What is NATO doing in Afghanistan? Defending values at the Hindu Kush in the present day international climate. We have to fight terrorism wherever it emerges. If we don’t do it at the Hindu Kush, it will end up at our doorstep. In other words, this perception gap [of the North Atlantic military alliance operating in South Asia] in the long run must be closed and must be healed – that is, for NATO’s future, of the utmost importance.” [1]

Not satisfied with the Vietnam that Afghanistan has become, NATO has now launched its Cambodian incursion. One with implications several orders of magnitude greater than with the prototype, though, into a nation of almost 170 million people, a nation wielding nuclear weapons. Pakistan.

As the U.S. delivered its 20th deadly drone missile attack of the month inside Pakistan on the 27th, five times the amount launched in August and the most in any month since they were started in 2004, NATO conducted a series of attacks with helicopter gunships in Northwest Pakistan. Claiming the “right of self-defense” and in “hot pursuit” of insurgents that had reportedly attacked a NATO camp, Combat Outpost Narizah, in Afghanistan’s Khost province near the Pakistani border, this past weekend NATO attack helicopters conducted two forays into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where U.S. drone strikes have killed a record number of people this month.

Estimates of those killed, dutifully referred to in the Western press as insurgents, militants or terrorists, were 30, then 50, afterward 60, 70 and later “82 or higher.” [2]

The amount, like the identify, of the dead will never be definitively known.

Press reports stated the targets were members of the Haqqani network, founded by veteran Afghan Mujahedin leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who when he led attacks from Pakistani soil against Afghan targets slightly over a generation ago was an American hero, one of Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” Two years ago the New York Times wrote: “In the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani was cultivated as a ‘unilateral’ asset of the CIA and received tens of thousands of dollars in cash for his work in fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, according to an account in ‘The Bin Ladens,’ a recent book by Steve Coll. At that time, Haqqani helped and protected Osama bin Laden, who was building his own militia to fight the Soviet forces, Coll wrote.” [3]

As to the regret that the otherwise praiseworthy Haqqani has of late allied himself with the Taliban, one voiced by among other people the late Charlie Wilson who once celebrated Haqqani as “goodness personified,” in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press last year Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told his American audience that the Taliban “was part of your past and our past, and the ISI and the CIA created them together. And I can find you 10 books and 10 philosophers and 10 write-ups on that….” [4]

On September 27 two NATO helicopters attacked the Kurram agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, killing six people and wounding eight. A local Pakistani government official described all the victims as civilians. According to Dawn News, “Nato has also shelled the area before.” [5] Three attacks in three days and as many as 100 deaths.

On the same day a U.S. drone-launched missile strike killed four people in the North Waziristan agency. “The identities of the four people killed in the attack were not known….” [6]

The above events occurred against the backdrop of the revelation in Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars that “a 3,000-strong secret army of Afghan paramilitary forces run by the Central Intelligence Agency had conducted cross-border raids into Pakistan.” [7]

After mounting in intensity for two years and consisting in part – helicopter gunship attacks and special forces assassination team raids – of covert operations, the U.S. and NATO war in Northwest Pakistan is now fully underway and can no longer be denied.

The Pentagon – the helicopters used in the attacks on September 25 and 26 were American Apaches and Kiowas – defended the strikes over the weekend as falling within its rules of engagement and Defense Department spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said the U.S. had adhered to “appropriate protocol” and “Our forces have the right of self-defense.” [8]

A spokesmen for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force initially denied that Alliance forces had launched any attacks inside Pakistani territory, although Afghan police officials had confirmed that they did. On September 27, however, the International Security Assistance Force verified that NATO forces had conducted the deadly strikes. As the third attack by NATO helicopters occurred on the same day, “Coalition officials said the cross-border attacks fell within its rules of engagement because the insurgents had attacked them from across the border.” [9]

A NATO official informed the press that “ISAF forces must and will retain the authority, within their mandate, to defend themselves in carrying out their mission.” [10]

Mehmood Shah, former top security official of the Pakistani government in the region where the helicopter gunship and drone strikes have killed over 200 people so far this month, said of the recent NATO attacks: “This should be considered a watershed event. They [Nato] must be warned: the next time you do this, it can lead to war. Our units should be deployed to fire upon them. This border has sanctity. Nato must realise they have a mandate to operate in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan.” [11]

On September 27 Interior Minister Rehman Malik denounced the NATO raids as a violation of Pakistani territorial integrity and national sovereignty and told the nation’s Senate that the Afghan ambassador to Islamabad would be summoned to explain the attacks. Malik and the Pakistani government as a whole know that the Hamid Karzai administration in Kabul has no control over what the U.S. and NATO do in its own country, much less in Pakistan. The interior minister’s comment were solely for internal consumption, for placating Pakistani popular outrage, but as Pakistan itself has become a NATO partner and U.S. surrogate [12] its officials, like those of Afghanistan, will not be notified of any future attacks.

Nevertheless domestic exigencies compelled Malik to denounce the strikes inside his country and assert “I take the drone attacks in Pakistani territory as an attack on the sovereignty of Pakistan.” A senator from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz “asked the government to inform the parliament about any accord it had reached with the US under which drone attacks were being carried out.” [13]

At the same time Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit went further and lodged what was described as a strong protest to NATO Headquarters in Brussels over the weekend’s air strikes, issuing a statement that said in part: “These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates,” as its mandate “terminates/finishes” at the Afghan border.

“There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules. Any impression to the contrary is not factually correct. Such violations are unacceptable.” [14]

By the evening of September 27, after the Pakistani complaints were registered, NATO’s ISAF attempted to conduct damage control and reverted to the military bloc’s original position: That it has not launched attacks inside Pakistan at all. On that very day it had dispatched two more helicopter gunships for the third raid in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

NATO will continue to launch lethal attacks inside Pakistan against whichever targets it sees fit and will proffer neither warnings nor apologies. The U.S. will continue to escalate attacks with Hellfire missiles against whomever it chooses, however inaccurate, anecdotal and self-interested the reports upon which they are based prove to be.

The death toll in Pakistan this month is well over 200 and for this year to date over 2,000. The justification for this carnage offered by the U.S. and NATO is that it is intended to extend the policy of Barack Obama to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” insurgent networks in Afghanistan into Pakistan, supposedly the sooner to end the war.

Forty years ago Obama’s predecessor Richard Nixon began his speech announcing the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia with these words: “Good evening, my fellow Americans. Ten days ago, in my report to the nation on Vietnam, I announced the decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year. I said then that I was making that decision despite our concern over increased enemy activity in Laos, in Cambodia, and in South Vietnam. And at that time I warned that if I concluded that increased enemy activity in any of these areas endangered the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam, I would not hesitate to take strong and effective measures to deal with that situation.” [15]

He claimed that “enemy sanctuaries” in Cambodia “endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam,” and “if this enemy effort succeeds, Cambodia would become a vast enemy staging area and a springboard for attacks on South Vietnam along 600 miles of frontier: a refuge where enemy troops could return from combat without fear of retaliation.”

The course he ordered was to “go to the heart of the trouble. And that means cleaning out major North Vietnamese and Vietcong occupied territories, these sanctuaries which serve as bases for attacks on both Cambodia and American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.”

The practical application of the policy was that “attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.”

In language that has been heard again lately in Washington and Brussels – with nothing but the place names changed – Nixon claimed: “We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia, but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam….”

Washington indeed expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia, with what disastrous effects the world is fully aware, and soon thereafter departed Southeast Asia in defeat, leaving vast stretches of Vietnam and Cambodia in ruins.

Afghanistan and Pakistan will not fare any better.

Iran urges Islamic states’ aid to Gaza

With new international efforts underway to deliver aid supplies to Gaza, Iran has called on Islamic countries to provide financial support for the besieged territory.

Addressing the 35th annual meeting of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) Board of Governors in Azerbaijan, Iranian Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini condemned the silence of human rights advocates about the crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinian people, saying their approach is “shameful.”

“The oppressed people of Gaza are in need of the all-out support of Islamic countries and free-spirited nations of the world to break the blockade of the strip,” Hosseini was quoted by IRIB as saying on Wednesday.

The comments come a day after Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Tel Aviv would block Iranian and Lebanese aid shipments to the Gaza Strip, referring to them as “flow of arms.”

“We have the right to inspect and prevent the flow of arms into Gaza. We can’t let Gaza become an Iranian port,” Ashkenazi said on Tuesday.

His statement followed earlier remarks by Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, announcing plans to send two Iranian aid ships carrying humanitarian relief and medical supplies to the Gaza Strip.

The pro-Palestinian campaign comes after Israeli commandos stormed the Gaza Freedom Flotilla aid convoy on May 31, killing at least 9 civilian activists and injuring dozens of others in international waters.

Intimidating Iran: Mubarak allows US warships to cross Egyptian Suez Canal

June 21, 2010 1 comment

Intimidating Iran: Mubarak allows US warships to cross Egyptian Suez Canal

Egyptian president Hasni Mubarak faces a tough time in Egypt for allowing US warships to pass Egyptian territory. The ships are being sent to intimidate Iran to force it to abandon its nuclear program.

Haaretz: More than twelve United States Naval warships and at least one Israeli ship crossed the Suez Canal towards the Red Sea on Friday, British Arabic Language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Saturday.

According to the report, thousands of Egyptian soldiers were deployed along the Suez Canal guarding the ships’ passage, which included a U.S. aircraft carrier.

The Suez Canal is a strategic Egyptian waterway which connects between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

According to eyewitnesses, the U.S. battleships were the largest to have crossed the Canal in many years, Al-Quds reported.

Egyptian opposition members have criticized the government for cooperating with the U.S. and Israeli forces and allowing the ships’ passage through Egyptian territorial waters.

They said they viewed the event as Egyptian participation in an international scandal, and added that the opposition would not sit with its arms crossed while the country allowed a fleet of U.S. and Israeli military ships to cross.

Egypt allows use of Suez Canal for build-up of war against Iran. Report: U.S., Israeli warships cross Suez Canal toward Red Sea 20 June 2010

Cairo, 19 June – Egypt allowed eleven US Navy battleships transporting an aircraft carrier, infantry troops, armoured vehicles and ammunition as well as one Israeli warship to cross from the Mediterranean Sea into the Red Sea via the Suez Canal.

Talking to the London-based daily Al-Quds, retired Egyptian General Amin Radi, chairman of the national security affairs committee, told the paper that “the decision to declare war on Iran is not easy, and Israel, due to its wild nature, may start a war just to remain the sole nuclear power in the region”.

Turkey Decorates Air Force Chief Rao Suleman with Highest Military Award

Islamabad, Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman was on Wednesday decorated with highest military award of Turkey. Commander of Turkish Air Force General Hasan Aksay decorated his Pakistani counterpart with “Legion of Merit” award at impressive ceremony in Ankara, a Pakistan Air Force press release said.

Turkish Navy to escort next flotilla: PM Erdogan on board

Turkish Navy to escort next flotilla: PM Erdogan on board

ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considering sailing to the Gaza Strip as part of an aid flotilla backed by the Turkish Navy.

Lebanese newspaper al Mustaqbal quoted security sources as saying that Mr Erdogan was pondering the move in order to break the barrier imposed against Gaza by Israel.

It said that “as part of the open conflict between Turkey and Israel following the massacre against the ‘freedom sail’ to Gaza and the protest sparked in the world, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is considering going to Gaza himself in order to break the blockade imposed on the Strip.”

The sources said Erdogan raised the option in discussions with associates.

The report added that the Turkish leader also told the U.S. that he planned to ask his navy to escort another aid flotilla – but officials in Washington asked him to delay the plan in order to look into the matter.

The move followed strong criticism of Israel by Erdogan after Israeli armed forces killed several people on board an aid flotilla Monday, sparking widespread international condemnation.

When the possibility of Erdogan joining a flotilla was posed to Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, he said such a move was not a “realistic scenario” and dismissed it outright.

“Some of these reports must be taken with a grain of salt … I am not sure that is a realistic scenario,” he told Sky News.

“I prefer that we sort these things out peacefully. Nobody wants any saber-rattling. It does not do any good,” said Regev.

Turkey wants to lead Muslim world: Ties with Israel history

There is more to the story than the headlines. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a genius. He knows exactly what to do and where to take his country. He decided a few years ago that Turkey needs to begin moving beyond its borders. It saw Iran isolated, the Arabs constipated, Pakistan targeted, Nigeria bifurcated, Indonesia marginalized, and Bangladesh under the shadow of Bharat.

Turkey thus took the only logical step that is possible. He formed alliances with Pakistan and Iran, and built bridges with its former provinces of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Turkey has unparalleled good will in Pakistan. It has no issues with Iran. It needs the popularity in the Arab world to be accepted as a leader.

It now has that.

Israel disappointed Turkey when its was trying to bring a solution to the Palestine problem. In the middle of its hard work, Israel invaded Gaza and pured tremendous atrocities on the worlds largest prison.

A peeved Turkey walked off the stage and snubbed President Shimon Perez. Israel did not take a hint. When Tel Aviv imposed an embargo on the arms exports to Ankara, Turkey was furious.

The Turkish flotilla sending humanitarian supplies to Gaza had been planned for more than two years and is actually a sequel to earlier attempts to do the same.

Israel has a slight window of opportunity to recover the diplomatic territory that it has lost. However knowing the personality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it is highly unlikely that the Israeli Premier makes an apology.

WASHINGTON—Turkey moved closer to severing its relations with Israel, demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologize for his government’s high-seas military action against a pro-Palestinian flotilla this week in order to avert a formal diplomatic rupture.Senior Israeli officials responded Friday that their government would never apologize for an act of “self defense” and acknowledged that Israel could be on the verge of losing its closest military and economic ally in the Middle East.Such a development, these officials said, would raise new strategic and diplomatic challenges for Israel if Ankara reorients itself away from its historically pro-Israel and pro-Western stance.

“[We] hope that it won’t happen. But if it does, it will be very problematic for the region and Europe as well,” said a senior Israeli defense official in Washington. “It will mark another step of Turkey moving eastward.”

Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, laid out three demands for Israel to meet in order to maintain its relationship with Ankara.

In addition to the public apology from Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Tan said the Israeli government must consent to an international investigation into the commando operation, in which nine Turkish activists died on a Turkish-flagged ship, the Mavi Marmara. The Turkish envoy, a seasoned diplomat and former ambassador to Israel, also said Israel must take concrete steps to ease its military blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“Israel cannot find any better friend in the region than Turkey. And Israel is about to lose that friend,” Mr. Tan said.

The Turkish envoy, when pressed by reporters about whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considering severing Ankara’s diplomatic relations with Israel, responded: “The government might be forced to take such an action.”

Senior Israeli officials indicated that Mr. Netanyahu was unlikely to concede to any of Turkey’s demands. They said that Israel itself would lead a probe into the raid on the Mavi Marmara, and that it remained undecided if foreign governments or organizations would be allowed to play a supporting role. They also rejected the prospect of Israel lifting its blockade on the Gaza strip, though added that Israel was willing to explore new ways to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory.

Referring to a complete lifting of the siege on the Gaza strip, a senior Israeli official said: “This is absolutely not going to happen.”

The militant Palestinian organization Hamas took power in the Gaza strip in 2007 and fought a month-long war with Israel beginning in late 2008. Hamas has launched thousands of rockets on Israel in recent years, many smuggled to Gaza by sea or through tunnels linking the territory to Egypt.

“Hamas would have unfettered access to massive armaments” if the blockade was lifted, the official said.

Mr. Tan’s comments Friday mark the latest in an escalation of threats from Mr. Erdogan’s government to dramatically alter Ankara’s diplomatic engagement with Israel. Israel has long viewed Turkey as its closest partner in the Middle East, where most Arab governments continue to eschew diplomatic ties. Israel has peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, but these relationships haven’t blossomed on the commercial and strategic levels as have Israel’s ties to Turkey.

Mr. Tan said Friday that Israel would need to respond quickly to Turkey’s demands before Mr. Erdogan was forced to take further action. He emphasized that his country’s public was demanding its government take additional steps to punish Israel for its military operation.

Mr. Tan wouldn’t say if Israel would have to meet all of Turkey’s demands in order to salvage its relations with Ankara. But the diplomat stressed that a public apology from Mr. Netanyahu was the most important and the most pressing. “This would be the first step,” he said.

The Israeli-Turkish alliance grew up in the mid-1990s and was largely driven by the Turkish military, which at the time was engaged in a brutal war with Kurdish separatists and in need of the high-tech hardware and intelligence Israel could supply. At the time, Turkey was also similar to Israel in that it had cold or hostile relations with most of its neighbors to the east, and was in need of an ally.

But Turkey’s geopolitical position has significantly shifted since then. Ankara has other ready suppliers of military equipment, including its own growing production.

Meanwhile, with the Cold War over and a government that has resolved many problems with its neighbors, Turkey no longer feels surrounded.

Turkey also has changed domestically. Once aloof and immune to government decisions, Turkey’s military is no longer all-powerful. The chief of the General Staff has regular meetings with Mr. Erdogan and would be included ahead of time on any decision as important as this to the military, said Turkey analysts.

Senior Israeli officials said they hoped relations could revert back to the status they enjoyed before Mr. Erdogan’s election. “I hope we can go back to the good old days,” said the senior Israeli defense official.

The Obama administration has sought to play a mediating role between Israel and Turkey since the operation against the Mavi Marmara on Monday.

A senior U.S. official confirmed that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu raised the possibility of Turkey severing relations with Israel during a meeting Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the U.S. officials said the State Department has been pushing both sides to lower the rhetoric and seek common ground on the fallout from the operation and the investigation.

Still, Turkey’s envoy to Washington also said Ankara was disappointed by the Obama administration’s failure to publicly condemn Israel’s military action against the Turkish ship. He said the U.S. should also be publicly supporting the need for an international investigation into the probe.By JAY SOLOMON. “The U.S. should have been the first party to condemn this aggression,” he said. —Marc Champion in Istanbul contributed to this article. Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

We have been predicting an Israeli-Turkish rift for a few years. The tiff has huge repercussions for the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Turkey has calculated that it will never be allowed to enter the EU. Ankara has determined that the EU is a Christian Club, and the admission of a Muslim state into the heart of Europe is not acceptable to the Europeans. Sarkozy has said it publicly, and Gerrt Wilders says it in many many words.

Mr. Wilders sends a message to Ankara that Brussels could not.  Therefore Turkey has a look East policy. It wants leadership of the Middle East. There is a colossal vacuum in the Middle East. The compliant kings and sultans of the Arab world are too busy in their hedonistic ventures to worry about Israel or leadership or unity.

Turkey has thus calculated that it can and will lead. Sending one flotilla has won over the hearts and minds of Palestinians, and Egyptians. The Pakistanis were already fans. The Iranians are on the same page.

If Turkey plans this right, it can and should be able to take the leadership of the Muslim world. It deserves to.

US President Barack Obama Not Ready to condemn Israel over Gaza ship attack

THE US has declined to condemn Israel for its raid on a humanitarian flotilla headed for Gaza, but said the incident showed Middle East peace talks were needed “more than ever”.

The White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did describe the situation in Gaza as “untenable” and “unacceptable,” but Washington’s reaction to the raid did not match the explicit rebukes of Israel of some of its allies.

As diplomatic fallout multiplied, and threatened to derail a bid to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, President Barack Obama also called key regional power broker, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs was earlier asked directly whether his boss would condemn Israel over the drama in international waters in which nine people were killed by Israeli commandos.

Speaking carefully, Gibbs stuck to the language of a UN Security Council statement issued late Sunday (local time) on the raid.

The statement condemned “those acts which resulted in the loss of at least ten civilians and many wounded”, but did not specifically say whether the Israeli raid or actions of pro-Palestinian supporters caused the violence.

It also called for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent” probe into the incident conforming to international standards, Mr Gibbs said.

“We’re obviously supportive of that.”

Mrs Clinton said Washington supported an “Israeli investigation that meets those criteria. We are open to different ways of assuring a credible investigation, including international participation”.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley explained why Washington thought Israel should carry out the investigation rather than an independent international body.

“These were Israeli forces that carried out this action and we think they’re in the best position to investigate what instructions were given to these forces, how was the situation when they approached the flotilla, and what transpired onboard that ship,” he said.

The deadly maritime confrontation threatens to stymie US peace moves again at a time when the Obama administration has just restarted “proximity” peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Mr Gibbs said that he did not think the incident, which triggered global fury, would have “a great impact” on Washington’s ties with the Muslim world, despite staunch US support for Israel.

Israel has blamed activists on a Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, for the confrontation, saying its troops were attacked as they boarded the ship and that nine passengers were killed in the ensuing fight.

But passengers disputed that version of events, saying that those on board were not armed with anything more threatening than a few wooden batons.

The showdown provoked a crisis in Israel’s relations with Turkey – once its closest Muslim ally – as diplomatic sources in Ankara confirmed at least four of the dead were Turkish.

It also provoked another diplomatic headache for Washington, as Mr Obama had expended considerable effort trying to maintain good relations with Turkey, a rising regional power which is also key in the confrontation with Iran.

In his call with Mr  Erdogan, who earlier branded the raid a “bloody massacre” Mr Obama expressed his “deep condolences for the loss of life and injuries resulting from the Israeli military operation against the Turkish-flagged ship bound for Gaza”, the White House said.

“The President affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security,” a White House statement said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been due at the White House on Tuesday (local time) for talks seen as an effort to move on from recent and rare public disagreements with Mr Obama.

But he cancelled the visit to return home to deal with the crisis. The White House said that Mr Obama’s talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas next week here were still on as scheduled.