Turkey's military asked the government Thursday to approve attacks on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, signaling growing frustration over a lack of action against the guerrillas by Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Such action could put an overstretched U.S. military in the middle of a fight between two crucial partners, the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds. A recent surge in Kurdish attacks in southeastern Turkey has increased the pressure on Turkey's military to act.
"An operation into Iraq is necessary," Gen. Yasar Buyukanit told reporters.
Buyukanit said the military already has launched operations against separatists in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern region bordering Iraq.
"Our aim is to prevent them from taking positions in the region with the coming of spring," he said, adding the rebels generally intensify attacks as melting snow opens the mountain passes.
Recent clashes have killed 10 soldiers and 29 Kurdish guerrillas, Buyukanit said.
His call steps up pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take a harder line against Kurdish guerrillas and their leaders in northern Iraq. There is strong public support for such a move, but the possibility of high casualties could make the government nervous ahead of elections that must be held by November.
If Erdogan's government does ask parliament to approve an incursion, a key consequence would be strained ties with Washington — which fears an offensive would provoke a fierce reaction from Kurdish groups in Iraq that are key allies of U.S. forces.
The United States also sees Turkey as a crucial ally, strategically straddling Europe and the Middle East. But some Turks question just how strong their ties should be with Washington if it refuses to side with them against the rebels.
Even if the Bush administration decided to act strongly against the Kurdish rebels in the mountains near the frontier, U.S. forces are already stretched thin by the battle against insurgents in central Iraq.
Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried spoke with Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy and urged Turkey to show restraint in responding to attacks, a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack earlier acknowledged the legitimacy of Turkey’s concerns about the Kurdish militants, but said the Turkish and Iraqi governments should to resolve the problem together.
“Turkey faces a real threat from the PKK,” he said. “It’s a terrorist organization. It has killed innocent Turkish citizens. It has killed Turkish military. And it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.”
Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, said recently that Iraqi Kurds would retaliate for any Turkish interference in northern Iraq by stirring up trouble in Turkey's southeast.
Iraq urged to take action
Turkey demanded Monday in a note to the Iraqi ambassador that Iraq take immediate action against the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Turkey has previously asserted its right to stage a cross-border offensive if Iraqi officials fail to clamp down on the guerrillas.
Turkey staged several incursions into Iraq in the early 1990s with forces as large as 50,000 troops. But each time the rebels made a comeback after most of the Turkish soldiers withdrew, leaving behind only about 2,000 soldiers to monitor rebel activities.
Buyukanit predicted victory in the fight against the rebels if the military is authorized to move into Iraq.
"If the authority is given to us, we'll do this kind of operation and we'll be successful," he said.
The military says up to 3,800 rebels are based just across the border in Iraq and that up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey.
"The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq," Buyukanit said. "It has spread its roots in Iraq."
Human rights groups have accused Turkey's government of using brutal tactics in fighting the rebels, who were at their peak of power in the 1990s. A decade ago, fighting desolated huge swaths of the southeast, leaving villages burned or abandoned.
The conflict has left more than 37,000 people dead since 1984. Turkey has vowed to continue fighting until all rebels are killed or surrender.