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Turkey Calls for Help to Fight Kurdish Rebels in Iraq

  • David Dyar

The Turkish government is calling for action against Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq, as violence between Turkish troops and rebels escalates. In recent weeks, Turkey has sent more troops to it's southeastern border, where the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is fighting for autonomy, in part, by launching attacks from Iraq's mountainous northern region across the border. This weekend, the Turkish army bombed PKK bases in Iraq.

The PKK officially ended a ceasefire on June 1, claiming efforts by the Turkish government to end the 26-year long conflict had stalled.

In the last few weeks, dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed or injured in clashes across the predominantly Kurdish east and southeast of Turkey. The Turkish army and government claim many of the rebels came from bases in neighboring northern Iraq. The head of the Turkish army, General Ilker Basbug, said in a television interview that Turkey's patience is running out.

"We are where words end," Basbug warned. "The presence of PKK bases in northern Iraq will certainly affect Turkey and Iraq's relationship, and will negatively influence relations between the U.S. and Turkey, the general said. How many casualties has Turkey seen in the past two months? This hurts all of us," Basbug added.

Those sentiments were echoed by Turkish interior minister, Besir Atalay, who warned "No country would allow camps of a terrorist organization to target a neighboring country."

Turkey claims more than 4,000 rebels are based in northern Iraq, mainly around the Kandil mountains.

The tough statements by both the Turkish government and army come as both come under public pressure to act against the PKK, according to Turkish journalist and expert on military affairs Metehan Demir. He says a cross-border operation into Iraq is possible.

"In the near future, Turkey might carry out, actually, a comprehensive military operation within northern Iraq. But Turkey has tried these cross-border operations in the past, maybe more than 30 times. And now, it's well understood that making cross-border operations or military operations are not the key solutions to finish that problem," he said.

Observers say one of the reasons previous Turkish incursions into Iraq failed was a lack of support from Iraqi Kurds living in the region. The northern Iraqi region is controlled by the semiautonomous, Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. Ankara until recently had been deeply suspicious of the KRG, fearing it was encouraging secessionists' demands by Turkey's own Kurdish population. But in the last few years, diplomatic relations have dramatically improved. Trade is also booming; and earlier this year the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, visited Ankara. But the Turkish government now says Iraqi Kurds have to decide which side they are on.

"The authorities in northern Iraq have a choice. They can make peace and cooperate and open their gates to prosperity, to trading over Turkey with the rest of the world," said Basbug.

In the last few days, Ankara is reported to have sent the Kurdistan Regional Government a list of more than 240 names of PKK leaders who, they say, are based in northern Iraq, and called for those listed to be sent back to Turkey.

The U.S. is already providing intelligence to Turkish forces, but observers says its unlikely Washington would commit its forces to an operation against the PKK. Retired Turkish general Haldun Solmazturk spent much of his career fighting the PKK both in Turkey and Iraq. He says any incursion into Iraq is a distraction to the real problem facing Turkey

"The problem is mainly a Turkish problem inside Turkish borders. I mean the existence of PKK elements in the Kandil mountains is just a small extension of the major problems inside Turkey. So we have to accept that. And we have to avoid giving the Turkish people a false impression that once we cross the border, even way into northern Iraq and imprison their leaders, and I mean all of sudden the whole problem will evaporate; this is not the case," he said.

Even though it is widely accepted the majority of the Kurdish rebels of the PKK are based in Iraq, it is equally accepted the overwhelming majority of those rebels are Kurds from Turkey.

The head of the Turkish armed forces has acknowledged the PKK could not be defeated by military means alone. But government efforts to resolve the conflict through political means appear stalled, and Turkey continues to use anti-terror laws to arrest members of the country's main, legal pro-Kurdish party.

For now at least, observers say, Turkey seems committed to pursing a military solution to the conflict.

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