Will an extended Turkish offensive further destabilize Iraq?

President Bush wants a limit to the Turkish campaign against rebels, but Turkey says no to a timetable.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Gates visit: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, middle, and his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul, met in Ankara Thursday to discuss strikes within Iraq.
Rich Clabaugh

Rebuffing American calls for a swift withdrawal of its forces from northern Iraq, the one part of the country at relative peace, Turkey is refusing to place a timetable on its campaign aimed at Kurdish militants.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates left Ankara Thursday with few public promises that Turkey would limit its offensive, now entering its second week, which is using intelligence from the United States to target the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkish air and artillery strikes continued Thursday as ground forces sought to destroy bases in the remote, mountainous region of Iraq.

This US support has sparked fury among Washington's main allies in Iraq and, analysts say, an extended period of fighting risks destabilizing the semiautonomous Kurdish region by drawing Iraqi Kurdish forces into the fight against Turkey – while any overt Iraqi support for the PKK could prompt a far more serious Turkish escalation.

"We're entering a tense phase in the US-Turkey relationship," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The word has come back to Washington that this has really strained the US-Iraqi Kurdish relationship to its limits [and] has to end, or we're in trouble."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, warned that the "crisis is very sensitive" for Iraq. "We told [Turkey] that if these operations are not suspended, it would destabilize the whole region," he told the Monitor. "We told them this is the 25th time [Turkish forces] have entered Iraq, but have achieved no results … the situation is very dangerous."

Over the past few days, many Iraqi Kurds have held street protests against the Turkish offensive. "We feel the Turkish aggression is a veiled threat to us not to implement Article 140 or to postpone it," says demonstration organizer Aziz Omar, referring to the article of the Iraqi Constitution that calls for a referendum on the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurds, who have a significant presence in the ethnically and religiously mixed city, insist it should be part of their semiautonomous region. Kirkuk is also home to Turkmen, who have ethnic and historic ties to Turkey. They oppose Article 140.

The task of balancing the competing needs of Turkey and the US, two critical allies, has fallen to Mr. Gates, who asked Turkey to end its incursion within days or "a week or two, not months." During meetings with senior Turkish officials Thursday, he also called for political and economic measures to ease the plight of Turkey's ethnic Kurds, who form the ranks of the estimated 3,000 PKK militants based in northern Iraq.

But Turkey made clear that military considerations trump all else. "Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary," Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said after meeting Gates. "There is no need for us to stay there after we finish the terrorist infrastructure.… We have no intention to interfere in [Iraq's] domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area."

Gates stopped short of threatening Turkey, noting common interests in fighting the PKK, which the US and the European Union officially list as a terrorist group.

At a press conference in Washington Thursday, President Bush said Turkey should pullout "as quickly as possible" from Iraq. "The Turks, the Americans, and the Iraqis – including the Iraqi Kurds – have a common enemy in the PKK," he said, adding that he agreed with Gates that the incursion "must be limited."

"The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objectives and get out," Mr. Bush said.

While in Turkey, Gates added that, "It should be clear that military action alone will not end this terrorist threat."

The Turkish military says that 27 have died so far and that it killed more than 230 PKK militants. News reports quote a PKK spokesman claiming the group has lost only a handful of guerrillas and has stalled the Turkish offensive, the 25th cross-border assault since 1984 aimed at uprooting the PKK.

"Short term is a relative notion," Turkey's military chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, said on a broadcast interview. "Sometimes it is a day, sometimes it is a year. We have been struggling against terrorism for 24 years. That is why our struggle against terrorism will continue."

An initial US expectation that Turkey's operation might last only a week has eroded, says Mr. Aliriza. "Of course there is mission creep, you always want to take over the next hill, and there's always another target – and now you've lost 24 [Turkish soldiers] in there, maybe more," he says. "It's a major operation, but not a decisive one. At some stage, the troops are going to have to withdraw, having done some damage, but that doesn't mean the PKK will have been eradicated."

Gates's call for political and economic steps to undermine support for the PKK among Turkey's ethnic Kurds, discussed for years in Turkey but only haphazardly applied, "is just as important as his message about keeping this short," says Aliriza.

But in the current climate of violence, Turkish officials say that is not the top priority. "This is not a political issue – this is an issue of terrorism, and no one is going to negotiate with terrorists," says Nabi Sensoy, Turkey's ambassador to the US. "Let's not lose sight of the fact that not only are the PKK terrorists, but they are not representative of the Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin – who, by the way, have representatives in the Turkish parliament."

The incursion is designed to be "limited in the nature of its scope, size, and duration…. But it will totally depend on the circumstances on the ground," says Ambassador Sensoy.

US defense officials say the flow of intelligence to Turkey about PKK moves could be affected by an extended operation. But reports of US-Turkey tension are exaggerated, says Sensoy: "We have been for very long with the United States in the fight against terrorism…. Bush himself has called the PKK an enemy of the US, even as it is the enemy of Turkey and of Iraq."

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek sought to ease US and Iraqi fears. "No one should be concerned. We will leave Iraq as soon as we are done," he told Today's Zaman, an English-language newspaper. And our mission will be accomplished when the terrorist camps in northern Iraq are destroyed."

But such an aim has never been achieved before, even with the help of Iraqi Kurdish factions that collaborated with Turkey by hunting down the PKK in the 1990s.

"We have fought the PKK in the past and we have learned that we cannot solve this problem by force," says Muhammad Mohsen, a commander of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces in Amadiyah district, adjacent to the fighting. He met behind closed doors with US officials over the weekend, a map spread out between them, but denied providing intelligence on the PKK.

"We will not be part of this war," says Mr. Mohsen, adding his suspicions that the US help for Turkey is aimed at Iran. "We understand that the US wants friends to take care of the Iran issue. But we will not accept that."

The US has called for caution since last fall, when Turkish public opinion for retaliatory strikes into northern Iraq boiled over after a spate of PKK attacks. Many Turks blame US forces for permitting the PKK to stage such attacks and for allowing Iraqi Kurds to provide safety in northern Iraq where they can attack Turkey, a NATO ally.

Howard LaFranchi contributed reporting from Washington; Sam Dagher from Arbil and Kirkuk, Iraq.

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