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Turkey withdraws troops from northern Iraq

Turkey's military said Friday it has ended a ground offensive against Kurdish rebels in Iraq, but said that foreign influence did not play a role in its decision.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Turkey's military said Friday it has ended a ground offensive against Kurdish rebels in Iraq, but said that foreign influence did not play a role in its decision. At least 200 trucks carrying Turkish troops were seen leaving the Iraqi border area and heading into Turkey's interior.

"There was no question of completely liquidating the terrorist organization, but Turkey has shown the organization that northern Iraq is not a safe haven for them," the General Staff said.

Turkey sent thousands of soldiers into remote, mountainous northern Iraq on Feb. 21 to crush rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who use the region as a base for attacks on Turkish territory.

"It was determined that the aims set at the start of the operation had been achieved," the General Staff said in a statement. "Our units returned to their bases (in Turkey) on the morning of February 29."

Announcing the withdrawal ahead of the General Staff, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters in Baghdad that his government welcomed the move.

Turkey's political and military leaders had pledged the operation would continue for as long as necessary but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a brief trip to Ankara on Thursday, urged a short and carefully targeted campaign.

Washington, like Ankara and the EU, brands the PKK a terrorist organization, and has been supplying intelligence to the Turkish military on the PKK in Iraq.

PKK weakened
Turkey's military said it had killed 240 rebels in the eight-day ground offensive and suffered the loss of 27 soldiers. The PKK said it has killed more than 130 Turkish troops but only five rebels had died. It was not possible to verify the figures.

Turkey had said the ground operation, backed by warplanes, tanks, long-range artillery and attack helicopters, would continue until PKK bases were erased and the rebels no longer posed a threat to Turkey.

The withdrawal without apparently rooting out all PKK bases, especially in the Qandil mountains, will raise questions about whether the rebel movement has been fatally wounded.

Turkish leaders have been under domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3,000 PKK members who stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish targets.

The PKK in northern Iraq claimed victory over the Turkish military.

"Because of the fierce battles between the PKK and the Turkish forces, the Turkish forces have withdrawn," said Ahmed Danees, the PKK's foreign relations spokesman in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Kurds, long suspicious of neighboring Turkey, fear it is seeking to undermine the autonomy of Iraq's oil-rich Kurdistan region. Ankara says it wants only to end terrorism.

The PKK has been fighting for decades for ethnic rights and self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

But Turkish pressure has gradually squeezed it out of the country, forcing it to base itself in mountains of northern Iraq that lie outside the control of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.

Ankara blames the separatist PKK movement for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since 1984.

A senior Turkish military source said earlier this week that around 10,000 troops had been involved in the operation in Iraq, which mainly centered on the Zap valley.