BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq said on Wednesday it had set up more checkpoints to restrict the movement of Kurdish guerrillas and cut supply lines to their mountain hideouts following Turkey’s demands for firm action against the rebels.
Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops along its rugged border with Iraq, backed up by tanks, artillery, warplanes and helicopters, in preparation for a possible incursion to crush militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) there.
Baghdad and Washington have urged Ankara to refrain from any major cross-border operation, fearing this could destabilize the most peaceful part of Iraq and possibly the wider region. On Wednesday, Russia also urged Turkey to show restraint.
An estimated 3,000 PKK rebels are holed up in northern Iraq.
“There is an increase in checkpoints to prevent the PKK from getting food and fuel. There are measures to prevent them from reaching populated cities,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, told a news conference in Baghdad.
Zebari also said Iraq was trying to free eight Turkish soldiers captured by the PKK last week in southeast Turkey.
“We are expecting to solve this matter because these talks, which are going on through indirect parties, have reached an advanced level,” said Zebari at a joint news conference with his visiting Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki.
Washington, Ankara’s NATO ally, has said it does not expect Iraq to take military action against the PKK, but wants Baghdad to establish a “lookout list” of rebel leaders and take steps to disrupt their supply lines.
Ankara says it will exhaust diplomatic channels before launching cross-border strikes, but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is under heavy domestic pressure to get tough after an upsurge in PKK attacks inside Turkey.
The United States and the European Union, like Turkey, brand the PKK a terrorist organization. Ankara blames the group for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
Zebari said that in his talks with Mottaki he had warned of “serious consequences if there were a major military incursion into northern Iraq by Turkish military forces. This will have consequences for the entire region.”
Senior Iraqi and Turkish officials will have a chance to discuss the PKK problem at a planned meeting of Iraq’s neighbors in Istanbul at the weekend, though Zebari said he hoped the conference would not be “hijacked” by the issue.
“We want the meeting to focus on Iraq, Iraqi stability and security,” Zebari said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend the Istanbul meeting. Erdogan will then fly to Washington to press U.S. President George W. Bush directly over the PKK.
Turkey’s cabinet met in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss the latest clashes between its troops and the PKK along the border and to weigh up whether to impose targeted economic sanctions against groups supporting the rebels.
The measures could target Masoud Barzani’s autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, which has infuriated Ankara by refusing to crack down on the PKK.
Russia appealed to Turkey to show restraint.
“We share Turkish concerns over terrorist activities in its southeast, some of which are cross-border,” Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing on Wednesday.
“We stick to the position that exercising its legitimate rights, Turkey should realize its responsibility as a regional state so as not to make things worse. Any sharp movements can deteriorate the situation (and) take it out of control.”
Historically, Russia is a regional rival of Turkey and in Soviet times is known to have backed the Marxist-oriented PKK. But ties between Moscow and Ankara have improved sharply in recent years amid booming trade, tourism and energy links.