ISTANBUL, Turkey, (AP) – Parliament authorized the government Wednesday to send troops into northern Iraq to root out Kurdish rebels who’ve been conducting raids into Turkey. The vote removed the last legal obstacle to an offensive, but there was no sign of imminent action as the United States urged restraint.
Turkish leaders, under pressure from Washington and Baghdad, have signaled they would not immediately give the order to send in 60,000 soldiers, armor and attack helicopters into a region that has largely escaped the chaos of the Iraq war.
The crisis along the border, where the Turkish troops have massed since summer, has driven up oil prices along with tensions between Turkey and its longtime NATO ally, the United States.
President Bush said the U.S. was making clear to Turkey that it should not stage a major army operation in the Iraqi north, much of which has escaped the sustained violence and political discord common in the rest of Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Bush said Turkey has had troops stationed in northern Iraq “for quite a while,” a reference to about 1,500 soldiers deployed for years to monitor the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, with the permission of Iraqi Kurd authorities.
“We don’t think it’s in their interest to send more troops in,” he said.
While they now have the authority to strike at PKK bases used to stage attacks in Turkey, the country’s leaders appear to be holding back in hopes the threat of an incursion will prod Iraq and the U.S. to move against the guerrillas.
The Turkish military, which had little success when it last carried out a major incursion into Iraq a decade ago with 50,000 soldiers, estimates 3,800 Turkish Kurd guerrillas operate from Iraq territory and 2,300 are inside Turkey.
As Parliament voted 507-19 to approve military operations against PKK fighters in northern Iraq over the next year, Turkey’s government moved to explain its decision to its Arab neighbors, sending Foreign Minister Ali Babacan to both Egypt and Lebanon.
Oil prices surged briefly to a record $89 a barrel after the vote. Traders worry that any escalation in the conflict will cut oil supplies from northern Iraq.
Hours before the vote, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to say Iraq’s government was determined to halt “terrorist activities” of the PKK on Iraqi territory, his office said.
A close aide to al-Maliki said later that the two leaders agreed the Iraqis should deal with PKK fighters based inside Iraq and the Turks would take care of guerrillas operating in Turkish territory.
But Erdogan warned that Iraq must rein in the guerrillas, the aide said. “If you don’t solve the problem now, we will have no choice but to pursue the PKK inside Iraq,” he quoted the Turkish leader as saying.
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the confidential conversation, added that there would be no joint operations involving Iraqi and Turkish troops. He said Iraq would not agree to more Turkish soldiers entering its territory.
Erdogan had suggested that Turkey, Iraq and the U.S. conduct a joint campaign against the PKK. But U.S. and Iraqi troops are hard pressed elsewhere, and Iraqi Kurds are reluctant to fight their ethnic brethren from Turkey.
A Kurdish lawmaker in Iraq warned an incursion would threaten the relative stability of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and called on Turkey to deal with the issue “in a peaceful way.”
Adnan al-Mufti, speaker of the regional parliament, also said he believed Turkey had ulterior motives aimed at upsetting the success of the Kurdish region in Iraq because it fears separatist sentiment within its own borders.
PKK fighters operating from bases in the mountains of northern Iraq periodically cross the border to stage attacks in their war to win autonomy for Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. More than 30,000 people have died in fighting that began in 1984.
The authorization for an offensive inside Iraq had the backing of all of Turkey’s parliamentary parties except a small Kurdish party. A single lawmaker from the opposition Republican People’s Party voted against it.
“I am concerned that Turkey could be dragged into an Iraqi quagmire,” said the lawmaker, Esref Erdem.
Turkish leaders have said publicly that they would prefer a solution to the guerrilla problem that avoids a cross-border offensive, but Erdogan has warned that Turkey will take whatever steps it must to defeat the PKK.
“What’s important is the parliament’s decision, not what people say,” Erdogan said.
Public anger is high in Turkey over a recent spate of guerrilla attacks in the southeast as well as a perception that the United States has failed to back Turkey in its fight with the PKK, even though Washington lists the movement as a terrorist group.
Sam Brannen, an international security fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. had “underestimated the value of Turkey as a strategic ally” and created problems for itself by angering Turks with its failure to curb PKK activity in northern Iraq.
He said others in the region, such as Iran, Syria and al-Qaida in Iraq, could take advantage of strained Turkish-American relations and a destabilized northern Iraq.
“It’s not happening in a vacuum. There are other state and non-state actors who would see some advantage in drawing Turkey into the conflict,” Brannen said. “It’s really hard to see what U.S. leverage will be in this situation.”
At a White House news conference, Bush urged the Democratic-controlled Congress not to worsen tensions by approving a resolution labeling as genocide the World War I-era killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Turks as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.
Noting the number of domestic bills pending before Congress, Bush said, “One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire.”
Turkey, which argues the deaths came during civil unrest and not from a planned campaign to eradicate Armenians, is furious over the measure and has threatened repercussions if it is adopted. Turkey is a key route for moving supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The House vote to label the bloodshed nearly a century ago as genocide was in jeopardy after several Democrats withdrew their support and sounded alarms it could cripple U.S.-Turkish relations.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said failure of the measure might lead Turkey’s leaders to forgo military action in northern Iraq as a conciliatory gesture to Washington.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell indicated U.S. military leaders felt Turkey was not committed to invading Iraq.
“It would have enormous implications, not just for us but for the Turks, and I don’t think there is any rush to war on the part of the Turks,” Morrell said.
But Cagaptay said another serious PKK attack would probably trump diplomatic gestures.
“If there’s another massive PKK attack, killing a dozen civilians, you can expect they will go in within the next 24 hours,” he said.