ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States called on Thursday for NATO ally Turkey to end its major ground offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq as soon as possible, but Ankara said it would stay until the job was done.
The head of Turkey’s military General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, was quoted by CNN Turk as saying: “A short time is a relative concept, it could be one day or one year.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Ankara that he had been given no timetable for a Turkish withdrawal.
“The key is for us to make clear what our interests are, our concerns about the situation in Iraq,” he said after meeting Turkey’s defense minister.
Washington fears that a prolonged Turkish operation will undermine stability in the region, particularly Iraq, though it backs Ankara’s mission to crush the PKK and late last year began providing significant intelligence to do so.
“It should be clear that military action alone will not end this terrorist threat,” Gates added, saying Ankara must also take political and economic steps to isolate the PKK guerrillas and help support Turkey’s large ethnic Kurdish minority.
Turkey’s Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul said troops, battling icy winter conditions, would remain in Iraq as long as necessary to accomplish their goal of ending the PKK threat from bordering northern Iraq.
Thousands of Turkish troops, backed by warplanes and attack helicopters, crossed the border on February 21 to root out Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters and destroy their numerous bases.
It is Turkey’s first major ground offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq in a decade.
The outlawed PKK has been gradually squeezed out of Turkey and instead has been using remote mountainous northern Iraq as their main base in their decades-long armed campaign for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Gates also held talks with Buyukanit, President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara blames the separatist movement for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984.
Turkish leaders have come under renewed domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3,000 PKK members, including its leadership, who use northern Iraq as a base to stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.
Senior military sources in southeast Turkey told Reuters several hundred Turkish soldiers were ferried across the border by helicopter into northern Iraq on Wednesday evening.
A senior military source said around 10,000 troops were involved in the northern Iraqi operation, much centered around the Zap valley, a PKK stronghold.
Several hundred special forces, backed by soldiers, were leading the charge against rebel camps across an isolated part of northern Iraq, which is not under the control of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.
The Bush administration has been sharing intelligence with its chief military ally in the region, mainly to help its aerial bombing campaign to destroy PKK havens. If Ankara does not heed Washington’s call to complete the operation quickly, Washington could curtail or cut off that intelligence flow.
But Gates played down any differences.
“What is important is to serve both the interests of the United States and Turkey because I think we have shared interests,” he said.
“I think that those interests are probably not advanced by making threats, by threatening to cut off intelligence.”
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek tried to quell mounting international concern about the cross-border offensive.
“No one should be concerned. We will leave Iraq as soon as we are done. We are not intending to remain any longer than necessary in minus 26 degree temperatures,” he told the English language daily Today’s Zaman.
Turkey’s military General Staff has put the death toll among the PKK rebels at 230 since the campaign began. Twenty four soldiers have been killed so far, and more funerals were planned in Turkey for Thursday.
The PKK says that more than 100 Turkish troops had been killed. It has not given a figure for rebel casualties.
Ankara says it is engaged in a legitimate fight against what it and Washington describe as a terrorist organization.
Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said on Wednesday a prolonged Turkish operation would lead to dire consequences for the region and repeated Baghdad’s demand that the incursion end.
Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, said after talks in Baghdad on Wednesday that his government had approached Baghdad several times for help to combat the PKK. He said Iraq was not capable of dealing with the rebels, given its preoccupation with security threats elsewhere in Iraq.