ANKARA, (Reuters) – Turkey’s top general said on Saturday the Turkish armed forces withdrew its troops from northern Iraq on schedule and dismissed speculation that it had acted under pressure from its NATO ally the United States.
Turkey pulled its troops out of northern Iraq on Friday, ending a major offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels that Washington had feared might destabilise the wider region.
Yasar Buyukanit, head of the military General Staff, told the Milliyet daily the decision to pull out was taken on military grounds and said there was no need to continue the ground operation against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “If they say that the army withdrew early, then let them go there (northern Iraq) and stay for 24 hours,” Buyukanit said, referring to the deep snow and subzero temperatures in the tough mountainous terrain where the troops were fighting.
Buyukanit also denied any foreign influence on the decision, which had come just one day after U.S President George W. Bush urged a swift end to the offensive and he hailed the eight-day offensive as a success. “The armed forces fulfilled their duty with their land and air forces … They did incredible things there,” he said.
The army killed 242 rebels out of 300 targeted in the operation and PKK communications were cut, said Buyukanit. But Turkish newspapers noted the unexpected withdrawal came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a brief trip to Ankara, called for a short and carefully targeted campaign. “Gates left, the operation ended,” the liberal Radikal newspaper headline read on Saturday. “It has to be accepted that finishing the operation straight after Gates’ departure was unfortunate timing,” said Murat Yetkin, a columnist for Radikal.
Turkey, which has NATO’s second biggest army, sent thousands of soldiers into northern Iraq on Feb. 21 to attack PKK rebels who use the region as a base for attacks on Turkish territory.
Iraq and Washington have both welcomed the withdrawal, but some commentators said its timing could upset Turkish pride amid suspicions that the United States had forced an early pullout. “A very successful military campaign turned into a diplomatic retreat. It will be hard to remove doubts from the public’s mind. U.S.-Turkey relations will be hurt again,” said Ertugrul Ozkok, columnist in Hurriyet newspaper.
Newspapers said the sudden decision to withdraw had taken even Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan by surprise. His office was forced to tweak the text of an address given by Erdogan on Friday night to take into account the end of the land operation. “Erdogan was most surprised of all,” said the Taraf daily.
Erdogan denied he had been unaware of the plan to withdraw. “I have been in close contact with the General Staff since the beginning (of the operation), during every second of it,” Erdogan said in comments broadcast by Turkish TV on Saturday.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since the group first took up arms in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey.