Turkey seeks to quell fears for attack on Kurds

Posted in Europe | 03-Nov-07 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Khalil Eglaym, an Iraqi Kurd, patrols the deserted village of Barach. Most of the villagers fled their homes, fearing a Turkish offensive.

ISTANBUL: Turkey tried Thursday to allay fears about its plans for a possible cross-border assault on Kurdish rebels in Iraq, saying such an attack would target guerrilla bases and not amount to an "invasion."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to arrive in Ankara, the capital, on Friday as part of an intense campaign to prevent Turkey from sending troops into northern Iraq. The United States believes that such an operation could bring a wider conflict with another U.S. ally, the Iraqi Kurds.

Many Turks are furious with the United States for its perceived failure to pressure Iraq into cracking down on the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Protesters have urged the Turkish government to send forces across the border, even if it means deepening the rift with the United States.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, said that the military, if it crossed the border, would try to avoid confronting the self-governing Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq. Turkish leaders suspect, however, that the administration there is assisting the PKK, or at the very least tolerating its presence.

"Any cross-border attack would be aimed at hitting terrorist bases, and would not be an invasion," said Babacan, who has toured the Middle East to seek support from Arab leaders for Turkey's stance.

"We have doubts about the sincerity of the administration in northern Iraq in the struggle against the terrorist organization," he added. "We want to see solid steps."

The "invasion" reference recalled the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a source of tension between Washington and Ankara because Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to use its territory as a platform for attacking Saddam Hussein. Turkey has been troubled by the increasingly emboldened Iraqi Kurds following Saddam's ouster, fearing their success will incite separatism among its minority Kurd population.

The Iraqi Kurds have warned Turkey against staging a cross-border offensive, saying they will defend their territory against any incursion and suggesting that Turkey's ulterior goal is to disrupt their virtual mini-state. Turkey is wary of getting bogged down in a conflict that could be militarily inconclusive and politically damaging for a country seeking to burnish its international image by joining the European Union.

Washington has pressed Turkey for restraint while urging Iraqi Kurds to crack down on the PKK bases in Iraq, where guerrillas rest, train and resupply before infiltrating Turkey again to conduct attacks. The United States says it is now sharing intelligence with Turkey to thwart the PKK threat.

After meetings in Ankara, Rice will travel to Istanbul for a conference on Iraq that is likely to be dominated by talk about the crisis on the Iraqi-Turkish border. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq is expected to attend. Another delegate, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran, arrived Thursday night in Ankara.

Also Thursday, Turkey said planned economic sanctions would target only outlawed Kurdish militants and groups providing them with support in northern Iraq. The government declined to say what the new measures would include but made clear they would spare Turks and Iraqis not connected to the PKK.

Diplomats say Turkey may hold off on any sanctions and major military action to see whether the talks with Rice and further discussions between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President George W. Bush in Washington on Monday yield any results.