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Turkey's raids against Kurdish rebels unsettle Iraq

Turkish soldiers crossed the border Tuesday into northern Iraq in the latest strike against Kurdish rebels.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey; and Baghdad

While the US lends some support to increased Turkish pressure on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Tuesday against "anything that threatens to destabilize the north."

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Turkey's cross-border raids to strike at the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, continued Tuesday as 300 troops entered Iraq overnight. On Sunday, at least 10 jets struck Iraqi villages in the largest attack against the separatists in years.

If this pattern continues and a new front opens in the Iraq war, the instability that Ms. Rice spoke of could not only unsettle a relatively calm northern Iraq, but jeopardize already troubled efforts toward national reconciliation.

Iraqi Kurds, many of them sympathetic to fellow Kurds of the PKK, condemned the Turkish moves, and Washington's apparent green light. US forces opened up Iraqi airspace, and reportedly provided real-time targeting intelligence to NATO-ally Turkey regarding the location of PKK militants.

Analysts say the attacks will have more negative political impact than positive military results, and will further increase tensions in Baghdad between Iraqi Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni parliamentarians who are struggling to overcome many political differences rooted in sectarianism.

But in Turkey, pressure has grown on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to act, as PKK attacks since the late summer have surged against its troops and civilians.

"The way to keep pressure on the PKK isn't through military action, it's by engaging the Iraqi government and KRG [the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government] in efforts to ratchet up the pressure, and this is where Erdogan's policy falls short," says David Phillips, visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in New York. "All he's doing is increasing Kurdish nationalism across the board."

Turkey has deployed some 100,000 troops along the border with northern Iraq over the summer and threatened a major cross-border operation – it has conducted 24 since 1985 – if Iraqi Kurds and US forces in Iraq did not deal with the PKK. So far this year, Turkey has conducted a string of small-scale border crossings, and regularly shells villages and PKK bases on the Iraqi side of the border.

The 300 troops who went into Iraq Tuesday have returned to Turkey, according to Kurdish officials.

In a surprise visit to Baghdad, Rice said the US, Iraq, and Turkey have a "common interest" in stopping Kurdish rebels. "This is a circumstance in which the US has constantly counseled that we need an overall comprehensive approach to this problem."

US officials have denied giving Turkey an explicit OK to attack, though Washington has promised to provide effective intelligence on PKK movements. A joint center has been set up in Ankara to share imagery and other real-time intelligence, where the US is "essentially handing them their targets," according to a US military official quoted by The Washington Post.

President Abdullah Gul said Tuesday that Turkey's aims were limited to attacking the PKK: "There are no other goals. Iraq is Turkey's neighbor and we want to save the Iraqis from this trouble of terror."