Peshmerga Gen. Muhammad Mohsen took down his American flag, folded it up, and placed it in his office corner Sunday, reflecting the growing anger in Iraq's Kurdish north with US support for Turkey's campaign against separatist rebels operating in the region.
The intermittent offensive against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) reached a crescendo Thursday when ground troops crossed into Iraq in a campaign involving nearly 8,000 soldiers. Officials here say it is Turkey's most significant strike against the rebels in more than 10 years.
Frustration over the Turkish incursion cuts across the spectrum. Many average Iraqi Kurds sympathize with the PKK rebels' aim to form an independent Kurdistan and officials say Turkey's real goal is to destabilize its semiautonomous government, the leaders of which have long been American allies.
"We think the United States is making a big mistake," says General Mohsen, who once led Iraqi Kurdish fighters alongside US forces when they entered the northern city of Mosul during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On Sunday, eight Turkish soldiers were killed, bringing the death toll among the Turks to 15. Turkey said it killed 112 PKK rebels, which has been denied by a rebel spokesman quoted by Reuters. He said that 47 Turkish soldiers and only two rebels were killed.
Amid the distant sound of occasional explosions on Sunday, Turkish warplanes buzzed over a desolate mountain pass in the village of Sirya in Amadiyah, 15 miles from the Turkish border. Besides vultures hovering over the jagged mountain peaks, Kurdish government forces were the only fighters in the area. A bridge over a gushing creek in the area was reduced to a pile of metal.
Kurdish anger toward US for providing assistance to Turkey, its NATO ally, in its bombardment of suspected PKK targets has been simmering since last fall. It has led to public outbursts and now it appears to have become more serious, threatening one of the most important partnerships for the US in Iraq at a time when Washington is anxious to translate security gains into more lasting stability.
Adding to the stakes is the fact that US forces, with the help of Iraqi forces dominated by Kurdish contingents, continue to battle Al Qaeda-linked militants and other insurgents in areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk, which border Kurdistan and have significant sectarian and ethnic tension.
The event that unleashed most of the Kurdish anger here was what took place Thursday when about 350 Turkish soldiers rolled out of their barracks inside Iraq at Bamerne, west of Amadiyah, in 13 tanks to join their comrades coming from across the border, according to Mohsen. About 1,200 Turkish soldiers are stationed at Bamerne.
Hundreds of Peshmerga fighters, backed by local residents, rushed to the area to prevent Turkish forces, who were already two miles outside the base (a remnant from the last major Turkish incursion into northern Iraq in the mid-1990s), from going any farther.
"The Peshmergas told them if you go any further we will kill you," Mohsen says.
"He told me I will be the first to die in fighting the Turks," according to Mohsen.
The region's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, says the Turks have been emboldened by the support and intelligence they received from the US military in December to carry out a sweeping air assault against the PKK that Ankara said killed 175 rebels and hit more than 200 targets. The decades-old confrontation between the Turkish Army and the PKK has been escalating since the fall.
"They know the United States has been very soft with them [Turks], so they want to take advantage," says Mr. Barzani, a nephew of the president. "They gave them intelligence and allowed them to bombard our territory, so they ask for more now. This was a big mistake by the US to allow them to use the airspace."
Barzani says he's convinced the PKK is only a pretext for what he says is a Turkish war against the KRG. "Turkey publicly says their target is the PKK, but based on the movement that we see, we do not believe that's their only target. The target is the KRG.... We will resist. If they cross that border to come to us, we will fight."
Thousands of Peshmerga forces have been dispatched to the border area as a precaution against any further Turkish advance. Mohsen points to a red line along the Mateen mountain range in the area that he says if Turks crossed would trigger direct war with his forces.
Metehan Demir, a veteran defense correspondent now with the Hurriyet newspaper in Ankara, says the Turkish operation was carried out now, in the winter season, to catch the PKK off guard. "Everybody was expecting this operation to be carried out in the spring – as well as the PKK.... Such a move by the Turkish Army destroys the PKK's [spring defensive] plans because it was carried out in this season."
He says that while there has been much criticism for the operation among Kurdish officials in Iraq, it will not have much impact on the military decisionmaking in Ankara, Turkey's capital. He says senior Turkish politicians and generals have laid the groundwork with the US and Iraqi governments, and even Iraqi Kurds, to minimize criticism.
"Don't look at what [Iraqi Kurdish leader] Barzani and other Kurdish authorities say; this is just a good boy, bad boy game and it's not so surprising for Ankara," says Mr. Demir. "This time the political climate has been arranged…. It's not so bad for Turkey."
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates – who will visit Ankara this week – said Sunday that Turkey's campaign would not solve its problems with the rebels.
"After a certain point, people become inured to military attacks and if you don't blend them with these kinds of nonmilitary initiatives, then at a certain point the military efforts become less and less effective."