Turkey signals it's prepared to enter Iraq

7/19/2006 1:06:00 PM

Turkish officials signaled Tuesday they are prepared to send the army into northern Iraq if U.S. and Iraqi forces do not take steps to combat Turkish Kurdish guerrillas there — a move that could put Turkey on a collision course with the United States.

Turkey is facing increasing domestic pressure to act after 15 soldiers, police and guards were killed fighting the guerrillas in southeastern Turkey in the past week.

"The government is really in a bind," said Seyfi Tashan, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara. "On the one hand, they don't want things to break down with the United States. On the other hand, the public is crying for action."

Diplomats and experts cautioned the increasingly aggressive Turkish statements were likely aimed at calming public anger and pressing the U.S. and Iraq to act against the Turkish Kurdish guerrillas. But they also said Turkish politicians and military officers could act if nothing is done.

U.S. officials in Turkey and Washington were in contact with Turkish officials and military commanders to press them to work with Washington to combat the guerrillas and not to act alone, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Turkey's NTV television and Hurriyet newspaper reported the government has told the military to draw up plans for a push into northern Iraq and to advise on the possibilities such an incursion could lead to a clash with Iraqi Kurds or U.S. troops.

Any operation was unlikely before the end of August, when the current military chief of staff is replaced by an officer widely regarded as a hard-liner, NTV said.

The Western diplomat said the Turkish military long has had plans for fighting guerrillas in northern Iraq. These range from limited artillery and airstrikes on guerrilla bases, to attacks by commando forces and a broader ground offensive.

American officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have repeatedly warned Turkey against entering northern Iraq, one of the few stable areas of the country.

U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson said Turkish, Iraqi and U.S. cooperation is a "more sensible way to go forward than perhaps to ... try to do it unilaterally."

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, appeared to be addressing Turkish concerns when he said Tuesday that Iraqi Kurds "won't allow anyone to harm our neighbors by using our territory."

But he also said the problem with the guerrillas "cannot be solved through military means alone," Turkey's DHA news agency reported.

Turkey considers the guerrillas terrorists and has refused to talk with them.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to confirm reports that the military was ordered to draft plans when he said Tuesday: "We know how to take care of (terrorism) on our own... Our competent units are making preparations and will continue to do so."

Erdogan's spokesman, Akif Beki, refused to comment, but referred to a statement Monday by government spokesman Cemil Cicek. Cicek called on Iraqi and U.S. forces to take stronger action against the rebels and warned that if they did not, "Turkey is going to use its international rights until the very end."

Officials reported no unusual military activity in the border regions.

A Turkish push into northern Iraq could also threaten relations with European Union countries, which have been pressing Turkey to improve rights for minority Kurds.

The Turkish Kurdish guerrillas are mostly based in the Qandil mountains, an area 50 miles from the Turkish border with Iran. From Iraq, the guerrillas infiltrate southeastern Turkey to stage attacks.

Turkey has long had some 2,000 troops in northern Iraq near the border monitoring the area. But if Turkey sent in military units they would have to travel through territory controlled by Iraqi Kurds.

"I don't think it is Turkey's desire to stage an intervention in northern Iraq," said Ilter Turan, professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. Turkey "is simply trying to draw attention to the fact that it is an untenable position."