SIRNAK, Turkey, (AP) – Turkey said Tuesday it had begun preparations for a military operation into Iraq to chase separatist Kurdish rebels who have launched deadly attacks on soldiers in recent days.
Private NTV and CNN-Turk news channels reported that the government has decided to seek parliamentary authorization to launch a possible cross-border military operation in Iraq to pursue the rebels there. It was not clear when the government would seek the authorization.
A statement released after a meeting of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and security officials did not say that such an operation would definitely occur. Turkey has said it would prefer that the United States and its Iraqi Kurd allies in northern Iraq crack down on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“Institutions concerned have been given the necessary orders and instructions to make all kinds of legal, economic and political preparations to end the presence of the terror organization in a neighboring country in the upcoming period, including if necessary a cross-border operation,” the statement said.
The statement did not mention any preparations by the military, which declared months ago that it was ready for an incursion into Iraq.
It said the PKK, which has fought for autonomy for Turkish Kurds since 1984, was trying to increase attacks in order to disrupt economic, social and political development in Turkey that had sapped support for the group.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the attacks were a “source of deep concern” for the Iraqis, Turks and the U.S. He urged Iraq and Turkey to cooperate against terrorists.
“If they have a problem, they need to work together to resolve it, and I’m not sure that unilateral incursions are the way to go,” he said. “Sovereign states make decisions about how best to defend themselves. We have counseled, both in public and private, for many, many months, the idea that it is important to work cooperatively to resolve this issue.”
The United States opposes a Turkish military operation in the relatively peaceful north of Iraq because it would complicate efforts to stabilize the rest of the country. Such an operation could be costly and inconclusive for Turkey, jeopardizing ties with Western allies, and hardening animosity among Turkey’s minority population of Kurds.
Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said parliament would have to approve any large-scale operation into Iraq, but said Turkish troops were entitled to limited, cross-border operations if they were attacked by rebels from Iraqi territory.
“If we’re talking about hot pursuit, then there is no need for parliamentary authorization. If it’s a cross-border operation, then there is need for one,” Gonul said.
Backed by airpower, Turkish soldiers pressed ahead with a major offensive against separatist rebels in Sirnak province, close to the Iraq border.
Soldiers targeted suspected escape routes used by fighters and tracked rebels in the Gabar, Cudi, Namaz and Kato mountains in operations that began after 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush Sunday. Two more soldiers died in explosions Monday.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said the violence in Sirnak and the killings of the Turkish soldiers was of “great concern” to Iraq. He extended condolences to the victims’ families and solidarity with the Turkish people, but stressed that regional cooperation is key to confronting all terrorist groups.
Al-Dabagh invoked a September counterterrorism agreement signed by Iraq and Turkey that prohibits Turkey from sending troops to Iraq’s north, and said that preserving that agreement was the way to maintain the security and sovereignty of both countries.
Turkey had demanded the right to send troops into Iraq’s north to pursue Kurdish rebels. Iraq did not agree to the demand under pressure from the leaders of its semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Turks are furious that PKK rebels carry out attacks on Turkish soil and then slip across the border to mountain hideouts in the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Turkey has accused Iraqi Kurds of tolerating their ethnic brethren in the PKK; one punitive measure at Turkey’s disposal is to close the border with northern Iraq, hurting the economy of the landlocked region.
Still, the latest images of soldiers’ coffins draped in the red and white Turkish flag intensified pressure on Erdogan.
Opposition leaders, chastened by defeat in general elections in July, condemned Erdogan’s ruling party. One opposition group called for a cross-border operation, and another blamed the PKK attacks on the government’s “lack of determination” to fight terrorism.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert, noted that a cross-border offensive could disrupt efforts to assimilate its minority Kurdish population into the political process, especially after a bloc of pro-Kurdish lawmakers won seats in the July elections after an absence of more than a decade.
Erdogan also has a sensitive relationship with his own military, which has put the Islamic-rooted government on notice that it will not tolerate any effort to undermine Turkey’s secular traditions.
The PKK is branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Its war with Turkey has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Iran, which is also fighting a Kurdish rebel group linked to the PKK, reopened five border crossing points with Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Monday. The border points had been closed Sept. 24 to protest the U.S. detention of an Iranian official.