Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he told his Turkish counterpart on Thursday that Turkey should end its offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq as soon as possible, but that the U.S. is making no threats against its NATO ally if it fails to comply.
“The United States believes the current offensive should be as short and precisely targeted as possible,” Gates said after a meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul.
Gates said that a specific timetable for the Turks to stop their attack “did not come up during my meeting with the defense minister,” but he said before flying to Turkey that withdrawal should come in a matter of days, or weeks, rather than months.
“The key is for us to make clear what our interests are, our concerns about the situation in Iraq,” Gates said at a news conference with Gonul. “What is important is to serve both the interests of the United States and Turkey because I think we have shared interests.
“I think that those interests are probably not advanced by making threats or threatening to cut off intelligence,” Gates added.
Gates delivered his message in a face-to-face meeting with Gonul in advance of meetings with other top Turkish officials, including the prime minister and president.
Gates said he told the defense minister that military action alone will not end the threat from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, rebels that the Turks view as terrorists.
Gonul said the Turks have no intention of disturbing civilian areas of Iraq or occupying any portion of Iraq. He said the main goal is to destroy the PKK network in Iraq and render the organization unusable. He said he believes doing that would contribute both to the security in Iraq as well as stability in the region.
Before arriving in Ankara, Gates told reporters traveling with him that he measured “quick” action by the Turks in Iraq “in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months.” Those remarks Wednesday in India were the first time that the Pentagon chief put any time limit on the Turkish incursion launched into Iraq last Thursday.
Iraq demands immediate withdrawal
The Iraqi government has demanded that Turkey immediately withdraw from northern Iraq, warning Tuesday that it feared an ongoing incursion could lead to clashes with the official forces of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Turkish fighter jets, helicopters and hundreds of commandos streamed across the border into Iraq Wednesday despite the Iraqi and American calls to swiftly end the operation.
Gates said before arriving in Turkey that it is critically important for the Turks to communicate closely with the Iraqi government as well as the semiautonomous Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq.
“There certainly is a place for security operations, but these also need to be accompanied with economic and political initiatives that begin to deal with some of the issues that provide a favorable local environment where the PKK can operate,” Gates said. “They need to address some of the issues and complaints that some of the Kurds have and move this in a nonmilitary direction in order to get a long term solution.”
Gates said that since the U.S. provides intelligence and surveillance help to the Turks, other help might also be possible for economic and other efforts.
The U.S. defense chief was winding up an eight-day, four-country trip with his stop in Turkey and was returning to Washington later Thursday.