SENOBA, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkish military planes scoured the Iraqi border for Kurdish rebel camps on Saturday, army sources said, after diplomatic talks in Ankara to avert a major cross-border operation into northern Iraq failed.
Turkish-Iraqi talks collapsed on Friday evening after Ankara rejected a series of proposals by Iraqi Defence Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim to tackle Kurdish guerrillas as insufficient and taking too long to take effect.
Officials told Reuters that no further talks were planned and the Iraqi delegation, including U.S. military and Iraqi Kurdish officials, would leave on Saturday.
U.S. and Iraqi diplomatic efforts have been stepped up in recent days to try to dissuade NATO member Turkey from launching a major cross-border operation against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas based in northern Iraq.
Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops, backed by fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, and mortars, on the frontier before a possible offensive against about 3,000 PKK rebels using Iraq as a base from which to carry out deadly attacks in Turkey.
The United States opposes a major incursion into northern Iraq, fearing it could destabilize the relatively peaceful north of the country and potentially the wider region.
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict. In recent years the party has pushed for greater cultural and political rights.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took a swipe at western countries on Saturday for not helping Turkey fight the PKK, criticizing what he called an approach of “your terrorist is good, my terrorist is bad.”
“We want to see our western friends by our side in our fight against terror,” he told a conference in Istanbul. “Those who overlook terrorism are in cooperation with terrorism.”
Erdogan meanwhile played down comments by Turkey’s top general that the military was waiting for Erdogan to meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on November 5 before launching a major incursion.
General Yasar Buyukanit was quoted by Turkish media on Friday as saying the meeting was very important and the military would hold off until Erdogan returned before a potential move.
Senior Turkish diplomats say Erdogan has given Washington and Baghdad a limited time to show concrete results or steps to be taken against the PKK. The meeting in Washington will be the last chance, they told Reuters.
Any major offensive, expected to involve ground and air forces, would first have to be approved by the government.
“I don’t know what will happen before the American trip,” Erdogan said on Friday. “We are in a sensitive state all the time.”
But under growing public pressure, Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkey will not tolerate any more PKK attacks from northern Iraq. Some 40 people have been killed by the rebels in the last month, and the PKK said that in the latest major attack it took eight soldiers prisoner.
Army sources told Reuters on Saturday that military planes were running reconnaissance trips along the mountainous border taking photographs of PKK camps in northern Iraq. Helicopters were patrolling villages and soldiers sweeping for mines.
The military has already carried out as many as 24 limited operations into northern Iraq against the PKK but no major land incursion, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said on Friday. Turkish helicopter gunships and F-16 jets have attacked PKK positions inside Iraq in recent days.
Analysts question whether a major military offensive into northern Iraq would be successful, as past ones have failed to dislodge the PKK, whose members are also in Turkey.
Ankara had given Iraq a list of leading members of the PKK based in northern Iraq and demanded that Baghdad hand them over and shut down their numerous camps.
But the central Iraqi government has little control over semi-autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq, which is run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The KRG, run by Masoud Barzani, says it has no control over the PKK, considered a terrorist organization in the United States, Turkey and the European Union.
Barzani has vowed to fight any Turkish incursion.