The Turkish government said yesterday it will seek parliamentary approval to send troops into Iraq in pursuit of separatist Kurdish rebels, in what is seen as an attempt to focus U.S. attention on the problem after a series of deadly attacks in southeastern Turkey.
The White House issued its customary warning against an incursion, but former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said Washington’s failure to put enough pressure on the governments in Baghdad and northern Iraq to contain the rebels has left Ankara with few options.
“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 Turkish government said.
Officials from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party were quoted in wire reports as saying the Cabinet will “as soon as possible” submit to parliament a bill authorizing an incursion.
Diplomats and analysts predicted that large-scale military action will not take place anytime soon, saying the bill would serve as a warning to Iraq and the United States that they must deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose operatives conduct terrorist operations into Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
“The Turks are waving their hands, asking somebody to help them,” a former senior U.S. official said. “The recent PKK attacks are a huge deal in Turkey.”
More than two dozen persons — soldiers and civilians — have been killed in southeastern Turkey in the last 10 days. On Sunday, PKK rebels fatally shot 13 soldiers near the Iraqi border; in an earlier incident, several passengers were removed from a bus and shot.
The United States, which considers the PKK a terrorist organization, has said repeatedly that it wants to help Ankara and Baghdad, as well as the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, to solve the problem.
The Bush administration appointed a special envoy to deal with the matter a little more than a year ago. But the envoy, retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, resigned last month, frustrated with the Iraqis’ lack of will to act against the PKK. Colleagues say he was also troubled by Washington’s reluctance to put more pressure on the Iraqis — especially the Kurdistan government, which is privately sympathetic to the PKK’s goal of an independent Kurdish state.
“The argument that we have [too many] troubles in Iraq for our forces to start fighting the PKK is a valid one, but we don’t have to fight them,” the former senior U.S. official said. “We can help the government arrest people.”
A current U.S. official said it “requires a lot of resources” to track down and arrest people, and it is not clear whether the Iraqi government has those resources or is willing to invest in them. The official also said the terrain where the PKK bases are located makes military strikes difficult.
“If you dropped a bomb, people could just walk a few feet and be safe,” he said.
The official said Washington has been pressing the Iraqis, but conceded that “there is a limit to what we can do” because “we want the government of Iraq to be sovereign.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack strayed a little from the familiar U.S. refrain that military incursions are not helpful and must be avoided, inserting the word “significant” in reference to such incursions for the first time. He suggested there have been “some small incursions into Iraq” in the past “in the course of fighting the PKK” and the United States had not objected.
The already tense relations between Washington and Ankara are expected to take a turn for the worse if Congress passes a bill labeling the mass killings of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up the measure today.