BAGHDAD, (AP) – The Iraqi government demanded for the first time that Turkey immediately withdraw from northern Iraq, warning Tuesday it feared an ongoing incursion could lead to clashes with the official forces of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation would only end “once its goal has been reached.”
Turkish troops have seized seven rebel camps and have pushed more than 12 miles into Iraq, a Turkish government official and military official who are familiar with the incursion plans told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Earlier Turkish media reports had put Turkish troops nine miles inside northern Iraq.
Turkish media reports have said that thousands of troops are inside Iraq.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq in about a decade was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
“The Iraqi Cabinet has denounced the Turkish army’s incursion,” al-Dabbagh said after the government met to discuss the issue. “The Cabinet calls on Turkey to withdraw its troops immediately and stop the military intervention.”
Al-Dabbagh warned that tensions could escalate if the Kurdish military forces known as peshmerga were drawn into the fight.
“We want good relations with Turkey and Turkey should understand that the situation is dangerous and could be made worse by any military mistake that could prompt clashes between the peshmerga and Turkish troops,” al-Dabbagh said. “Then the military intervention might be widened and civilians might be endangered and infrastructure damaged.”
Turkey has assured the Iraqi government and the U.S. military that the operation would be limited to attacks on rebels. But the Kurds have expressed concern that civilians could be caught in the crossfire.
The Kurdish parliament met Tuesday in a special session and unanimously approved a measure authorizing the peshmerga to defend themselves and the Kurdish region if they were attacked by Turkish troops.
It also called on the Turkish government for compensation for material losses sustained as a result of the incursion, according to Kurdish lawmaker Sardar Harki.
Erdogan said the Turkish military was “destroying all terrorist elements on its path of advance,” but that, “civilian infrastructure is not being damaged.”
“The international community has understood well Turkey’s need to fight terrorist elements,” Erdogan said in a weekly address to ruling party lawmakers. “Everyone has begun to understand well Turkey’s rightful cause.”
A Turkish delegation will visit Baghdad on Wednesday to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, both Kurds, as well as other top Iraqi officials, al-Dabbagh said. Turkish officials confirmed that they were sending a diplomatic delegation to Iraq.
The Turkish military said warplanes and artillery had hit targets in Iraq but that snow on Tuesday had hampered combat operations of some units, which instead engaged in patrols and supply runs. Some units were replaced with fresh troops in some “critical locations,” the military said.
It said one unit was attacked with long-range guns at night, resulting in the deaths of two soldiers. Troops responded with medium and heavy weaponry.
“The terrorists’ losses could not be assessed because of the bad weather,” the statement said.
Turkey launched the incursion into northern Iraq on Thursday against separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK wants autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and rebels have carried out attacks in Turkey from bases in Kurdish Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has killed up to 40,000 people.
Qandil is a prime target for the Turkish military, which has already launched air strikes there. The PKK’s senior leadership is believed to be based there, although some reports indicate that many guerrillas may have fled the area in anticipation of an attack.
Confirmation of Turkish maneuvers in Iraq is difficult because the combat zone is a remote, mountainous area, much of which is still covered in thick snow.
The U.S. and European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group, and Turkey informed Washington of its ground incursion before it started.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that all sides recognize that the PKK represents a threat.
“The way to deal with that threat is through cooperation among the parties. Certainly, we want to see any military steps that are taken be done in a fashion that is coordinated” and doesn’t hurt civilians, he said.
Iraqi parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, also called on the Turkish government to withdraw its troops, saying the incursion was a “flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
The Turkish military has reported the deaths of 19 military personnel and more than 150 rebels, while the PKK claims only a few rebels and 81 soldiers have died.