Turkish aircraft strike Kurd areas inside Iraq

Turkey Iraq Kurds
Turkish soldiers patrol a border area Monday. Kurdish guerrillas killed four Turkish soldiers in a clash Tuesday in southeastern Turkey.Ibrahim Usta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Turkish helicopter gunships attacked abandoned villages inside Iraq on Tuesday, Iraqi officials said, in the first such strike since border tensions have escalated in recent months.

A spokesman for the Kurdish regional administration, Jamal Abdullah, denied the report but said two Turkish warplanes dropped flares Monday in the mountains near Zakhu.

But Col. Hussein Tamir, an Iraqi army officer who supervises border guards, said the airstrikes occurred before dawn on abandoned villages northeast of Zakhu, an Iraqi Kurdish town near the border with Turkey. There were no casualties, he said.

A spokesman for the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, corroborated Tamir's account of the airstrikes, and said sporadic clashes had been taking place inside Turkey since late Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Witnesses also said the Turkish bombing lasted a half-hour in the villages.

"I was on the other side of the mountain when I heard huge explosions and could smell TNT powder all over the area," said shepherd Ibrahim Mazori, 53. He said he sometimes spends a night or two in the villages while tending his sheep.

Several hours after the dawn airstrikes, about a dozen warplanes and at least two helicopters were seen taking off from an air base in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey. It was unclear where they were headed.

Iraqi officials said helicopter gunships were responsible for the morning raids, while Turkish media reported warplanes were involved.

Bush, Erdogan met last month
It was the first major Turkish action against Kurdish rebels since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met President Bush in Washington earlier this month. The United States and Iraq have pressured Turkey to avoid a large-scale attack on rebel bases in northern Iraq, fearing such an operation would destabilize what has been the calmest region in the country.

Meanwhile, Kurdish guerrillas killed four Turkish soldiers in a clash Tuesday in southeastern Turkey, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said.

More than 50 Turkish troops have been killed in a series of hit-and-run attacks by Kurdish rebels since late September. Turkey says it has killed dozens of rebels.

Turkey has massed tens of thousands of soldiers along the border with Iraq, but political and military analysts believe the Turkish military will concentrate for now on limited air raids and special, counterinsurgency operations inside Iraq rather than launch a large ground offensive against Kurdish rebels.

A lengthy campaign involving large numbers of troops could get bogged down as winter swiftly approaches in the mountainous border region, making it difficult for tanks and other heavy military equipment to function in bad weather.

The United States has pressed Turkey to avoid an all-out cross-border incursion, which could be politically damaging for the Turks and raise questions about whether their true goal is to punish the Iraqi Kurd administration for their separatist aspirations. Turkey fears its own Kurdish minority could become emboldened by the success of Iraqi Kurds in taking control of their own affairs.

U.S. sharing intel
However, air assaults conducted with the help of newly provided U.S. intelligence could allow Turkey to chip away at rebel strength and show an angry public that it is taking substantive steps to combat the rebel problem. Skeptics believe Kurdish fighters have scattered from their camps or are ensconced in hideouts that are difficult to spot from the air.

U.S. authorities have agreed to share intelligence about positions of Kurdish rebels with Turkey, possibly enabling the Turkish military to carry out limited assaults.

"The United States has declared the PKK as the common enemy. The struggle against this enemy will be maintained until it is eliminated," Erdogan told lawmakers in Parliament Tuesday.

Kurds are a major ethnic group straddling four Middle Eastern countries — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria — totaling about 20 million people. Most live in Turkey, primarily in the southeast, where the PKK has been fighting for autonomy since 1984 in a conflict that has killed nearly 40,000 people.