BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A senior Turkish envoy began talks with Iraqi officials in Baghdad on Wednesday as the United States called for a quick end to Turkey’s week-long incursion into northern Iraq to fight Kurdish guerrillas.
Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said a prolonged offensive would lead to “dire” consequences for the region.
Saleh said Turkish envoy Ahmet Davutoglu would be told the operation had “not been conducive to Iraq-Turkey relations” and that the Iraqi government wanted it to stop. “The consequences are dire. This is a very dangerous, precarious situation,” Saleh told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Baghdad when asked what would happen if the offensive was not halted soon.
Thousands of Turkish troops crossed the border last Thursday to root out PKK fighters who have used mountainous northern Iraq as a base for their fight for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey since the 1990s.
Davutoglu, chief foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, was due to meet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, both Kurds, said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
Dabbagh said the visit would last one day. Davutoglu had already met some Iraqi officials, he added.
Iraq on Tuesday condemned the incursion as a violation of its sovereignty and, in its strongest comments so far, called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops.
Ankara says it is engaged in a legitimate fight against what it and Washington describe as a terrorist organisation. Turkey has given no firm indication how long the operation will last.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is due to meet Turkish officials in Ankara on Thursday, said Turkey must limit its operations to days or a couple of weeks rather than months. “It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave, and to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty,” Gates told reporters in New Delhi before leaving for a previously scheduled trip to Ankara. “I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that. Not months,” he said.
Turkish troops, backed by warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery, have been fighting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels in Iraq’s mountainous north.
The Turkish general staff released photographs on Wednesday of its troops in northern Iraq, sitting and traipsing through snow as well as reconnoitring the terrain.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle for self-rule in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984.
Turkey says it was forced to launch the attack after Iraqi and U.S. authorities failed to stop an estimated 3,000 PKK members from using northern Iraq as a base to stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.
Gates said Turkey should not rely on military action alone in dealing with the PKK. “There certainly is a place for security operations but these also need to be accompanied by economic and political initiatives and to deal with some of the issues that provide a favourable local environment where the PKK can operate,” he said.
The Turkish General Staff has said 19 of its soldiers have been killed during the incursion, with at least 153 PKK fighters killed, and that advances have been slowed by heavy snow in the remote, mountainous region of Iraq’s Kurdistan. PKK claims that 81 Turkish troops have been killed could not be verified.
A senior military official in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has put the number of Turkish troops in northern Iraq at about 2,000. Turkish sources have put the number as high as 10,000.
Turkish security sources say hundreds of Turkish special forces, backed by regular troops, are leading the fight against PKK bases and that troops had advanced as far as 30 km (20 miles) into Iraq.