Turkish army ready to cross into Iraq — general

ANKARA (AP) — Turkey’s military, building up troops on the Iraqi border, said Thursday it was ready to launch a cross-border offensive to fight Kurdish fighters — pressuring the government to support the idea which could strain ties with Washington and lead to tensions with Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey last carried out a major incursion into Iraq a decade ago, before the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. But separatist Kurdish fighters, taking advantage of power vacuum in northern Iraq, have escalated attacks on Turkish targets. Turkey complains the United States and Iraqi Kurds have done little to stop them.

“As soldiers, we are ready,” Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said Thursday, adding that the military was awaiting government orders before planning the offensive.

The military needs parliamentary approval for the deployment. Public support for such an operation has increased after recent killings of soldiers and a suicide bombing that killed six people and which authorities blamed on the rebels. Many Turks —  complaining of a lack of help from the US and other allies — believe a major incursion would help finish off the rebels from the Kurdish Labour Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy of the Kurdish-dominated southeast since 1984, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands. Although the Turkish government promised to back the military, it has been slow in asking parliament for approval to deploy troops, anticipating problems with Washington, Iraq and the European Union — all of which have urged Turkey to show restraint and find non-military ways to deal with the Kurdish rebellion. Turkey’s human rights records has been stained with allegations of excessive use of force in the fight against the fighters, and an incursion would not only alleviate the problem but also likely pit two US allies — Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish military — against one another. Turkish intelligence reports say that Iraqi Kurdish groups, which previously supported the Turkish military in fighting the fighters, were preparing defences against a possible Turkish incursion into northern Iraq.

Turkey fears that Iraqi Kurds want to establish an independent Kurdish state, which could revive the aspirations of separatist Kurds at home. The Turkish military also said it opposed Kurdish plans to seize oil-rich Kirkuk, and vowed to protect Turkmens living in the city.

The United States opposes any unilateral Turkish military action, fearing it could destabilise northern Iraq — the most stable part of the war-torn country. Washington also fears that, if it supports Turkey, it could alienate the pro-American Iraqi Kurds.

On Thursday, military trucks hauled more tanks and guns to the border area, local reporters said. The deployment has made it more difficult for the rebels to retreat to bases in northern Iraq, the military said.

But US State Department said Wednesday it had seen no evidence of a significant movement of Turkish military forces in the border.

Meanwhile, Buyukanit also complained about what he said was a lack of help from allies. “Turkey does not receive the necessary support in its fight against terrorism,” he said at an international security conference in Istanbul.

“There are countries which directly or indirectly support PKK terrorism.” Past cross-border operations have yielded mixed results, with many fighters sheltering in hide-outs and emerging again after most Turkish units withdrew.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the military could set up a buffer zone in northern Iraq to block Kurdish rebels from entering Turkey.

Turkey had set up a buffer zone along the 330-kilometre border in 1997, but gradually withdrew the bulk of its troops under international pressure, leaving about 1,000 inside Iraq. Those troops act as monitors, but have not pursued the rebels.

“To set up a buffer zone, Turkey needs to secure the consent of both Washington and the Iraqi Kurds,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.

“However, the military buildup clearly puts more pressure on US and Iraqi forces to do something quickly.” The Turkish military says up to 3,800 rebels are now based in Iraq, and up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey.

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