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Tensions on Iraq border rile Turkey

Hitting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq carries political risks for Turkey.

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But this buildup is causing speculation that Turkey could repeat past incursions, such as a 1995 operation that lasted for months and a 1997 attack that brought 50,000 Turkish troops deep into Iraqi territory.

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Along the rugged border areas, Turkey frequently mounts small-scale operations along the unmarked line into northern Iraq and on Sunday shelled PKK bases at Harkuk, nine miles inside the border.

"They continue to fight Kurdish terrorists that have targeted a number of their citizens in their country," US Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins said at the Pentagon on Wednesday. "They are conducting aggressive operation in southeast Turkey – counterinsurgency operations –and they continue to do so."

Turkish officials have been boosting rhetoric as the death toll climbs. "The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Iraq and Turkey," Oguz Celikkol, Ankara's special envoy to Iraq, said last week after a visit to Baghdad. "All the explosives used by the PKK in Turkey are traced back to Iraq."

Still, the recent rise in casualties from PKK attacks – from a low of just 40 to 60 per year since 1999 to some 200 in 2005 and more than 600 in 2006 – has increased pressure on Ankara to act. Some argue that Iraqi Kurds, specifically Mr. Barzani, leader of northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, are using the PKK to pressure Turkey.

Hints from Turkey that it might act to prevent Kurds from gaining control of Kirkuk – the oil-rich northern Iraq city that Turkey fears could enable Iraqi Kurds to declare independence – caused Barzani to warn in April about retaliating in Turkey's Kurdish southeast: "Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issues, and, if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakir's issues and other cities in Turkey."

"It's foolish [for Iraqi Kurds] to play the PKK card," says the Western diplomat. "Whatever the final shape of northern Iraq, those people are not going to be able to rely on Iran or the Shiite government in Baghdad. Export and import routes, for oil and goods, is through Turkey."

And the risks are high for Turkey, also. "If you do not prepare the ground politically, it's of no use," says Mr. Demir of Sabah. The choice is stark if the military deploys: go with "tens of thousands of troops and stay and wipe them out," and perhaps clashing with Iraqi Kurdish or even US forces – or go in briefly. But "if you go for one day and leave, and there is another PKK attack – are you going to go back?"

The premier last week said "our patience has run out." But parliament is currently in recess until the vote.

The situation on the ground today is far different from the southeast Turkey of a decade ago, when a marginalized region was subject to a state of emergency, serious human rights abuses, and iron-fist tactics by the Turkish military that destroyed 3,000 villages and displaced tens of thousands of people.

The conflict with the PKK has taken an estimated 30,000 lives, but since the 1999 capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey's ethnic Kurds have been granted an increasing number of ethnic rights – long denied them by a state that considered them "mountain Turks" – such as speaking Kurdish and running local government.