Istanbul — Turkey's surprise strike against Kurds inside Iraq was meant to destroy Kurdish guerrilla camps, but not to rout Kurdish civilians. So say the Turkish authorities in their first detailed disclosure about the motives and scope of the surprise strike, which occurred six weeks ago.
Because Turkish military authorities clamped strict censorship on the press and gave only brief official accounts of the operation, it was the source of much speculation. Foreign newspapers reported fierce fighting and a high death toll on the Kurdish side, and even the elimination of entire Kurdish villages. There was also speculation that Turkey wanted to relieve Iraq of fighting the Kurds, to allow it to concentrate on Iran.
Turkish authorities recently allowed a group of Turkish journalists to visit the Turkish-Iraqi border. From their reports and from talks with officials emerge these points:
Turkish intelligence sources determined earlier this year the presence of Kurdish guerrilla camps in an area stretching some 70 kilometers (43 miles) along the Turkish-Iraqi border inside Iraq. They estimated guerrilla force at about 12,000, which included some of the ''wanted'' Turkish terrorists who fled across the border as well as some Palestinians and Armenians who escaped from Lebanon.
From their camps, the Kurdish militants conducted frequent intrusions into Turkey's southeastern region, particularly in Hakkari Province, establishing contact with local Kurds, propagating Kurdish nationalism, and taking their money, food, and other supplies. They attacked Turkish trucks and once kidnapped several Turkish drivers.
The Turkish government expressed to the Iraqi government its concern over these developments, but the Iraqis confessed their inability to cope with the problems. They had no troops and little control of that rugged area.
Last May, a group of Kurdish militants ambushed a Turkish Army unit, killing three soldiers and wounding an officer. The Turkish general staff took the matter very seriously and started to plan a strike against the Kurdish camps, while Turkish diplomats engaged in talks with their Iraqi counterparts, saying, ''If you can't do it (control the Kurds), allow us to do it.''
The Iraqis not only agreed to let the Turkish forces attack the Kurdish militants, but also promised full cooperation from Iraqi officers who know well the forest-covered mountain area. Therefore, according to Turkish officials, Baghdad was fully aware and supportive of the ''limited military operation inside Iraqi territory.''
The purpose of the raid, say Turkish officials, was not to exterminate the Kurds in that area. The Kurds fled their camps as soon as the Turkish troops (mainly trained commandos) entered Iraqi territory.
The intention, they claim, was to clean ''these bandits'' out of the border area and let this strike serve ''as a warning that Turkey will react in the severest way to preserve the security of its borders.''
Turkish troops destroyed the camps. The few clashes ended with only one dead on each side, Turkish officials say. They insist that the Turkish forces did not capture any prisoners - although Iraqi diplomats had speculated at first that several Kurdish militants were in the Turks' hands.
They believe that the ''bandits'' who fled will not dare to come back for a long time. And if they do, Turkish officials say, Turkey will not hesitate to strike back again, with Iraq's consent, of course.
The Turkish Army has taken extra measures to preserve the security of the area. Commando units are on constant alert, border guards and the Air Force are continuously watching the area, and additional patrol units have been assigned to the protection of the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline.
Officials admit that a strong presence of Turkish military forces at Turkey's border with Iraq, Iran, and Syria will be needed for a long time to come, but they say ''the nation will make all the sacrifices to preserve its territorial integrity and security.'' Until recently, Turkey had been concentrating on its northern borders with the Soviet Union and its western borders with Bulgaria and Greece.
Turkish military authorities have taken this opportunity to display their interest in the development and welfare of the Kurdish-inhabited areas. Just as the raiding troops returned to base, the Army established a field hospital to serve villages near the border.
Most of the Kurds in Turkey (estimated at 8 million) live in that part of the country without proper health and educational services, without adequate jobs, land, and roads. Their conditions offer favorable ground for Kurdish nationalistic and communist propaganda.
So Turkey's present rulers are paying special attention to this area and are planning major development projects as well as educational and health programs.
Last month, however, several underground Kurdish groups uncovered after Turkey's 1980 military coup were tried. Thirty-five Kurdish ''revolutionaries'' got death sentences; 28 others received life imprisonment; and 311 were given various jail terms.
This was another indication that Turkey will not tolerate any Kurdish separatist activity or terrorism against Turkey, whether it occurs at home or in neighboring countries.