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Pressure Increases on Turkey to End Iraq Incursion


Turkey is continuing to send its forces into northern Iraq, in an operation against Kurdish rebels. The Turkish armed forces said it killed 77 rebels Tuesday and lost five soldiers. Since the incursion began last Thursday, Ankara claims 230 rebels have been killed, a number the rebels dispute. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul the United States is seen as playing a role in the operation.

As Turkish jets return from a sortie in northern Iraq, scores of helicopters are ferrying Turkish soldiers deep into the mountainous, semi-autonomous, Kurdish-controlled Iraqi enclave to attack bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party. Ankara says the rebels (known as the PKK) are using the bases to attack Turkey.

The rebels have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Retired General Haldun Solmazturk fought the rebels for eight years and was part of the last Turkish incursion into Iraq in 1997.

"The region we are talking about is mountainous and in wintertime they have the ability to ambush Turkish units, presumably well-prepared, well-armed, well-equipped," he said. "So you need to have reliable intelligence. Now, we understand, being provided by Americans."

But intelligence is not the only assistance Turkey wants from the United States. Ankara views Washington's powerful diplomatic muscle as just as important to Turkey's incursion.

According to Turkish analyst Armagan Kuloglu, containing criticism of the operation, especially from Kurdish leaders in the semi-autonomous enclave, is especially important to Ankara.

"I think the United States will convince the northern Iraq administration about this issue, because they know that it is very difficult to live in this area without the United States support," he noted.

The first few days of the operation saw little outright condemnation from Baghdad, other than expressions of concern for civilian casualties. Several analysts say that is in part due to U.S. pressure.

But criticism is growing. On Tuesday, Baghdad called for an immediate end to the operation, saying it is infringing on its territorial integrity. To help contain criticism, Ankara dispatched its chief foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Baghdad.

But Davutoglu refused to specify a timetable for withdrawal.

"There is no timetable, until the terrorist bases are eliminated," he said. "[The bases] cannot be tolerated, neither by the Iraqi government nor by us nor by the international community."

But Washington's apparent impatience over the incursion is important to Ankara. While the United States is supporting the operation, it does not want to alienate the Iraqi Kurds, another important ally.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates earlier this week made clear what Washington expects from Turkey.

"This operation should be very short and should be very precisely targeted, and then the Turks should withdraw back across the border," he said.

Gates is expected to deliver that message to the Turkish government during talks Thursday in Ankara. While Turkey will be reluctant to be seen as following U.S. orders, it is considered unlikely that Ankara would risk being internationally isolated.

With the Turkish military claiming to have hit more than 400 PKK targets in Iraq, General Solmazturk says the operation's objective, of dealing a blow to the PKK, may be close to being achieved.

"Fatal would be too much to describe the potential effect," he said. "But it would be a major blow. Because in any conflict you do not fight the people, you fight the minds and wills of the people. Such an operation will be a major blow on the will of the people."

With international pressure growing, in particular, from one of its most important allies, time could well be running out for the Turkish operation. Its success may well be judged in the coming months by whether the PKK is able to launch its traditional spring offensive against Turkey.