- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Turkey’s ambassador to the United States yesterday said Iraqi officials had proven unwilling or unable to curb Kurdish militants using the country as a staging ground for attacks inside Turkey, justifying Ankara’s decision to wage a ground campaign into northern Iraq six days ago.

As long as the Iraqi authorities, in Baghdad and the regions, either condone or admit they’re not capable of dealing with the problem, it is the right and responsibility of the Turkish government to protect the Turkish people, Ambassador Nabi Sensoy said in an interview yesterday.

The military assault poses a painful diplomatic dilemma for the U.S., pitting a NATO ally, Turkey, against the country at the center of the U.S. Middle East strategy.

The Bush administration has long backed Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organization. But there are widespread fears the fighting could escalate, destabilizing Iraq’s central government and leading to direct clashes between Turkish forces and the security forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and other top U.S. officials have pressed Ankara in recent days to wrap up the mission as quickly as possible.

It’s obviously not an ideal situation, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday. We hope this is a short-term incursion so that [Turkey] can deal with this threat.

There have already been tense confrontations between Turkish forces and the peshmerga, the military force of Iraq’s Kurds, in recent days.

In one incident, peshmerga forces reportedly prevented a contingent of Turkish troops from leaving a base inside Iraq to join the anti-PKK offensive.

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, told reporters: The longer Turkish soldiers stay inside Iraqi territory, the more likely that this is going to happen.

We need to avoid this at any cost. This has serious consequences even if this happens by accident, he added.

Mr. Sensoy said the Turkish campaign was strictly limited to fighting the PKK and eliminating PKK bases of operation in Iraq’s remote, mountainous north.

We are taking the utmost care to avoid any kind of collateral damage, he said. We are not targeting Iraqi civilians or civilian settlements, only the PKK.

But he declined to give even a rough date for when the operation would be concluded, saying that would be determined by Turkish military authorities.

The Turkish General Staff in a statement said 41 PKK rebels were killed in fighting yesterday, bringing the PKK death toll to 153 since Thursday. Turkish military officials say 17 Turkish troops have been killed in the assault.

Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority, has battled a violent separatist movement since 1984. The insurgency has cost 40,000 lives over the years, according to Ankara.

On a PKK Web site, a senior insurgent field commander in northern Iraq was quoted as calling on ethnic Kurds inside Turkey to rise up against the government.

If they want destruction, our youth must render the Turkish cities unfit for habitation, the commander said.

Mr. Sensoy said he had seen no reports of a backlash among Kurds inside Turkey, but Agence France-Presse reported that an estimated 10,000 Turkish Kurds staged a protest against the invasion yesterday in the city of Diyarbakir.

Mr. Sensoy said the ground operation was in part a follow-up to aerial bombardments of PKK positions that began late last year, but he said the aim of the mission wasn’t to destroy the PKK as a fighting force once and for all.

We cannot really expect to end the PKK with one or two blows, he said. But we know that 80 percent of all PKK fighters are entrenched in northern Iraq and they operate camps right on our border. We consider this a campaign in the fight against terrorism.

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