- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

CIZRE, Turkey — Supported by air power, Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq yesterday in their first major ground incursion against Kurdish rebel bases in nearly a decade. But Turkey sought to avoid confrontation with U.S.-backed Iraq, saying the guerrillas were its only target.

The offensive, which started late Thursday after aircraft and artillery blasted suspected rebel targets, marked a dramatic escalation in Turkey’s fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, rebel group even though Turkish officials described the operation as limited.

A military officer of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said on the condition of anonymity that several hundred Turkish soldiers had crossed the border. The coalition has satellites as well as drones and other surveillance aircraft at its disposal.

Sky-Turk television said about 2,000 Turkish soldiers were in Iraq operating against rebel camps about two miles in from the border. NTV television said a total of 10,000 soldiers were inside Iraq in an operation that had extended six miles past the frontier. The activity was reportedly occurring about 60 miles east of Cizre, a major city near the border with Iraq.

It was not possible to independently confirm the size or scope of the attack on the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. CNN-Turk television, citing Turkish security officials, said the operation could last two weeks.

The Turkish military said late in the day that five of its soldiers and 24 Kurdish rebels had died in firefights on the ground and dozens of guerrillas were killed by artillery and helicopter gunships.

Earlier, PKK spokesman Ahmad Danas said two Turkish soldiers were killed and eight wounded in clashes along the 240-mile border. There was no way to confirm either report independently.

The advance was the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey’s army is thought to have carried out unacknowledged “hot pursuits” in recent years, with small groups of troops staying in Iraq for as little as a few hours or a day.

The PKK militants are fighting for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The conflict started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

Turkey’s government has complained that Iraqi and U.S. authorities weren’t doing enough to stop guerrilla operations. The Turkish air force has been staging air raids on PKK forces in the north since December with the help of intelligence provided by the U.S., a NATO ally.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he called his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, on Thursday night to give him advance warning of the operation. Mr. Erdogan said he later briefed President Bush in a telephone call.

“The Turkish armed forces will return after they finish their job,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech. “The goal of the operation and of operations that will be conducted is just, and only, PKK camps located in the north of Iraq.”

Confirming the advance notice, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the Bush administration was urging Turkey to show restraint.

“We were notified and we urged the Turkish government to limit their operations to precise targeting of the PKK — to limit the scope and duration of their operations — and we urged them to work directly with Iraqis, including Kurdish government officials, on how best to address the threat,” Mr. Stanzel told reporters.

The operation was reportedly concentrated in the Hakurk region, south of the Turkish border town of Cukurca.

The Turkish military posted photographs on its Web site that it said were images of the operation. In one photograph, five soldiers in white suits walk up a snowy hill in the dark. Others show a soldier walking with a land mine detector and three military helicopters on the ground.

Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for southeastern Europe, said Mr. Bush promised Turkey’s prime minister at a Nov. 5 meeting that Washington would share intelligence on the PKK.

“The land operation is a whole new level,” Mr. Bryza said in Belgium. “What I can say is that what we’ve been doing until now has been working quite well.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the escalation. He said he recognized Turkey’s need for security, but appealed to Turkey and Iraq to work together to promote peace.

Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed to this report from Istanbul.

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