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."
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."
The Turkish General Staff denied Iraqi Kurdish claims of civilian casualties, saying in a statement about the Sunday airstrikes that "targets were determined after a meticulous assessment and they were not in areas inhabited by civilians. Claims that civilians were killed serve the PKK."
The recent attacks struck a raw nerve in northern Iraq. Thousands have demonstrated in recent months against Turkish military actions and accused Ankara of wanting to occupy Kurdish lands.
"Turkish troops committed an atrocious crime against innocent civilians and violated Iraq's sovereignty," said KRG President Massoud Barzani, whom Turkish generals accuse of harboring the PKK. Mr. Barzani, who refused to meet Rice on her visit to Iraq, said the US should fulfill its "moral and legal commitment to protect the country's sovereignty and defend the Iraqi people."
The scale of the Turkish incursions could further undermine any political deal-making between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite led-government and minority Sunni factions, and exacerbate hostilities between Iraqi Kurds and the central government in Baghdad.
Already, tensions are high over disagreements about the proposed oil law and contracts the Kurdish government signed with foreign oil companies.
"There is a feeling among a lot of Kurds that the Maliki government is ready to give the Turks all the help they need to bomb locations in Kurdistan," says Sarkot Hama, a human rights activist reached by phone in the northern Iraqi city of Sulamaniyah.
He says anger is growing over the widespread belief that civilians – and not PKK fighters – were targeted by Turkey. "The general consensus is that the Maliki government could care less about the feelings and interests of Kurds," says Mr. Hama.
In the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, magazine editor Nawzad Bolous predicts that tensions will rise: "The feeling on the street is that we must not just sit back idly while this is taking place. There is anger towards US forces. People feel they gave the green light to the Turks to bomb."
Both Iraqi and US officials are urging Kurdish restraint.
"I don't think it matters if it is 300 or 30,000 Turkish troops involved in a cross-border operation that is accompanied by airstrikes; it has the same effect," says Mr. Phillips. "It will radicalize the Turkish Kurds and drive a huge wedge between the KRG and Turkey, making future cooperation impossible.
"The missing link in [Prime Minister] Erdogan's approach is his failure to reach out to [KRG President] Barzani and make Barzani a partner in solving the PKK problem."
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday that 300 families had been forced to flee the weekend shelling of 10 villages. "Winter conditions have set in and living conditions are very harsh," the UNHCR said in a statement from Geneva Monday.
• Some material from the Associated Press was used in this report.