Turkish helicopters swooped into Iraqi territory Tuesday, Iraqi officials said, firing on villages in renewed pressure to dislodge Turkish Kurd guerrillas from bases in northern Iraq used to stage cross-border raids.
The helicopter attack was the first major Turkish action against the rebels since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Bush in Washington on Nov. 5. Turkey has demanded that the U.S. and Iraq crack down on guerrillas operating from Iraqi territory and has massed tens of thousands of soldiers along the border with Iraq.
The United States and Iraq have urged Turkey, a NATO member, 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.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Kurd regional administration, Jamal Abdullah, denied the helicopter attack report but said two Turkish warplanes dropped flares Monday in the mountains near the Iraqi town of Zakhu.
But Col. Hussein Tamir, an Iraqi army officer who supervises border guards, said the Turkish helicopters opened fire before dawn on abandoned villages northeast of Zakhu, an Iraqi Kurd town near the border with Turkey. There were no casualties, he said.
A Turkish government official confirmed the helicopter raids and said they were directed at suspected hideouts of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy for Turkish Kurds since 1984 in a conflict that has killed nearly 40,000 people.
The official said more raids could be expected within a few days. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A PKK spokesman corroborated accounts 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, located northeast of Zakhu near the border.
"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.
An all-out cross-border incursion could be politically damaging for the Turks, who are also seeking membership in the European Union. But an upsurge of rebel attacks has outraged the Turkish public, increasing pressure on Erdogan to show resolve. Time for any possible ground incursion is running out, however, with the approach of the harsh winter in the border region.
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.
In the latest attack, four Turkish soldiers were killed Tuesday in a clash with rebels near the southeastern Turkish city of Sirnak, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said. The dead soldiers included a lieutenant and three privates, the governor's office in Sirnak said.
Turkey also fears its own Kurdish minority could become emboldened by the success of Iraqi Kurds in winning broad autonomy within Iraq.
Despite U.S. pressure against a ground incursion, American authorities have agreed to share intelligence with Turkey about Kurdish rebel positions, 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 on Tuesday.
Air raids conducted with the help of newly provided U.S. intelligence could help Turkey chip away at rebel strength and show an angry public that it is taking strong measures to defeat the rebels.
For its part, Iraq's government is eager to avoid a confrontation with Turkey at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials are claiming progress in the fight against Sunni and Shiite extremists.
3 U.S. soldiers killed
Meanwhile, three U.S. soldiers were killed in attacks north of the Iraqi capital, the military said Wednesday.
Two U.S. soldiers died Tuesday in an explosion in Diyala province, the U.S. military said in a statement. Another soldier was mortally wounded by gunfire Wednesday while providing security during a training mission for Iraqi police near Mosul.
Their deaths brought to at least 3,864 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes eight civilians working for the military.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said American and Iraqi troops killed 15 suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants in a daylong battle the day before in Adwaniyah, about 12 miles south of Baghdad.
During the battle, American F-16 fighter jets dropped two 500-pound bombs on insurgent positions, the military said. It was unclear whether the 15 victims died in the gunbattle, or as a result of the U.S. bombing.
Elsewhere, at least 16 people were killed or found dead across the country Tuesday, according to police reports. Most of the deaths occurred outside of Baghdad.
Sunni, Shiite parties fail to work together
Improvements in security, however, have not produced power-sharing deals among Sunni and Shiite political parties. The U.S. believes such agreements are crucial to ensuring long-term stability.
On Tuesday, a key ally of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for Iraq's parliament to be dissolved and new elections held immediately to break the political deadlock.
Bahaa al-Araji, a lawmaker from al-Sadr's 30-member bloc, told reporters in Baghdad that the parliament has "become a burden on the Iraqi people rather than an institution to solve their problems and offer services."
"The parliament has become a very weak institution because of the way the elections took place, especially in Anbar and Mosul and some other southern provinces. I call for revising the election law," al-Araji said.
He said he was expressing his own views, and not speaking for his parliamentary bloc.
The next parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for 2009.
Earlier this year, al-Sadr's followers pulled out of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet to protest the Iraqi leader's reluctance to call for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Sadrists also withdrew from the legislature's largest Shiite political grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, but retained their seats in parliament.