ANKARA, Turkey — Several thousand Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq early Wednesday to chase Kurdish guerrillas who operate from bases there, Turkish security officials told The Associated Press.
Two senior security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the raid was limited in scope and that it did not constitute the kind of large incursion that Turkish leaders have been discussing in recent weeks.
“It is not a major offensive and the number of troops is not in the tens of thousands,” one of the officials told the AP by telephone. The official is based in southeast Turkey, where the military has been battling separatist Kurdish rebels since they took up arms in 1984.
The officials did not say where the Turkish force was operating in northern Iraq, nor did he say how long they would be there.
The officials said any confrontation with Iraqi Kurdish groups, who have warned against a Turkish incursion, could trigger a larger cross-border operation. The Turkish military has asked the government in Ankara to approve such an incursion, but the government has not given formal approval.
An official at military headquarters in Ankara declined to confirm or deny the report that Turkish troops had entered Iraq.
BACKGROUND STORY FROM JUNE 6
ISTANBUL, Turkey: Turkey’s casualties are mounting in its fight against Kurdish rebels, pushing it closer to a possible cross-border attack on guerrilla havens in northern Iraq. But such a campaign could be costly and inconclusive, disrupt Turkish general elections next month, strain ties with Washington and hurt Turkey’s efforts to join the EU.
With so much at stake, Turkish leaders are reluctant to stage a ground offensive in Iraq, despite their stated willingness to do so. They would prefer that the United States and Iraqi Kurds act on their appeals for a crackdown on separatist fighters, who raid southeast Turkey after resting, training and resupplying at bases in northern Iraq.
The chances of that happening are far from assured, and the Turks feel they can only wait so long before going into Iraq. The domestic pressure for action increases with near-daily reports of rebel attacks in the southeast.
“We have every right to take measures against terrorist activities directed at us from northern Iraq,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told European Union officials in Ankara this week.
Robust remarks like these are now so common that Turkey’s leaders are putting their credibility on the line. Another big bombing, or a lethal ambush of a military unit, might compel them to stage an incursion to show they can act, and not just talk.
“Government officials fell victim to their own games. They cannot get out of this trap they have fallen into,” columnist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in the Turkish Daily News. He said Turkey’s war talk had been designed, apparently in vain, to push the United States into expelling the PKK rebel group from northern Iraq.
The United States says the PKK is a terrorist group, but U.S. forces are consumed by chaos elsewhere in Iraq, and want to preserve the Kurdish-dominated north as a rare spot of relative stability. The Iraqi Kurdish administration has tense ties with Turkey, which has accused it of backing its Kurdish brethren in the PKK movement.
Preparations for a cross-border operation already appear to be underway. Turkey has sent more troops and equipment to the frontier with Iraq. Local residents said some military bases in the border area were unusually quiet because the bulk of their forces had been deployed.
Kurdish reports say the Turks shelled parts of northern Iraq on Sunday and Monday, and further artillery barrages could indicate a sustained effort to soften suspected rebel hideouts before a ground offensive. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, said Turkish helicopters were conducting surveillance over Iraqi border lands.
“There is no government decree at the moment,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday when asked whether the government has decided to ask the Parliament to empower the military for a cross-border operation.
“And yet the Turkish republic is ready for anything at any time,” ministry spokesman Levent Bilman said.
On Wednesday, a rebel bomb slightly injured six soldiers near the southeastern town of Lice, the state-run Anatolia news agency said. Separately, Turkish troops killed a Kurdish guerrilla in the city of Bitlis.
Kurdish rebels, who took up arms in 1984 and traditionally step up attacks in the spring and summer, have grown bolder in recent weeks.
On Monday, rebels killed seven soldiers at a Turkish military outpost. On May 24, a bomb believed planted by the PKK killed eight soldiers. On May 22, a suicide bomber killed six people in the capital, Ankara. Authorities said the bomber used explosives of a type favored by the PKK, though the rebels denied involvement.
Despite the violence and military buildup, there are plenty of reasons for Turkey to delay an incursion:
_ The United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, is struggling to restore order in Iraq, and an incursion would open up a new front in the conflict there. At a security summit in Singapore this past weekend, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned Turkey against sending troops into northern Iraq.
The American troop presence in northern Iraq is minimal, and a Turkish incursion would probably be limited in scope. A clash, accidental or otherwise, between U.S. and Turkish forces would be a worst-case scenario.
_ Turkey wants to join the European Union, which has urged the government in Ankara to grant more rights to its minority Kurdish population. An incursion could force civilians to flee their homes, and lead to allegations of human rights abuses, further complicating Turkey’s troubled EU bid.
_ Turkey doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what to do if it enters northern Iraq, where rebels are likely to fade deeper into mountain retreats. Turkish forces have pushed into Iraq before. This time, they could face a broader conflict with U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds, emboldened by economic and political muscle they have acquired since the downfall of their nemesis, Saddam Hussein, in an American-led invasion in 2003.
Turkey fears Massoud Barzani, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, is plotting to establish a breakaway nation dominated by Kurds that would stir separatist tendencies among Turkey’s Kurdish population.
“Are we going to fight only the PKK once we enter northern Iraq or will something happen with Barzani?” Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey’s military chief, told Turkish media last week. Buyukanit has said a military operation in Iraq is necessary, but is waiting for the government to define its political goals.
_ A cross-border operation could influence general elections in Turkey on July 22. The Islamic-rooted government called the elections early as a way out of a political deadlock with the military-backed, secular opposition. The prospect that the failures or good fortune of a military campaign might shape the next government could hurt Turkey’s maturing democracy.
“Military action might confuse Turkish domestic and foreign policies if it is done before the elections,” Senol Kantarci of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis.