CIZRE, Turkey (AP) â€” The top commander of the Kurdish rebel group PKK said his forces would resist any Turkish military incursion aimed at destroying rebel bases in northern Iraq, a news agency reported Saturday.
Turkey has been building up its military forces on the Iraqi border in recent weeks, amid debate among political and military leaders about whether to attack PKK rebels who stage raids in southeast Turkey after crossing over from hideouts in Iraq. Military experts say it is unlikely that a Turkish incursion would lead to a decisive victory over the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“No one should expect us to extend our necks as sheep to be slaughtered in the face of an attack aimed at destroying us,” Firat news agency quoted the rebel commander, Murat Karayilan, as saying.
Despite the bold rhetoric, the experienced guerrillas would probably not stand and fight, according to analysts.
Instead, they might seek safety in cave complexes or run deeper inside northern Iraq, back to their main bases on the Qandil Mountain, leaving Turkey with what could turn into an open-ended and costly deployment inside Iraq.
“Moving three to five kilometres inside would not solve the problem,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan of Turkey’s Economic Policy Research Institute. “It is not easy to find even 3,000 terrorists in such difficult geography, which is full of mountain ranges, caves, hidden valleys and unknowns for Turkish soldiers.” Turkish commandos occasionally stage so-called “hot pursuits” of the rebels, who operate in small bands, carry little food and know freshwater sources in the region. Those pursuits are limited in time and scope.
During past major incursions in 1990s, fighting occurred on a front stretching more than 160 kilometres, mostly in rugged terrain where communications were difficult and the Turkish Kurds were already entrenched in the mountains.
If Turkey enters Iraq again, the military might set up a buffer zone as deep as 20 kilometres, to try to stop rebel infiltration, a Turkish government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. Turkey already has more than 1,000 troops in Iraq monitoring rebel activities since the last major incursion a decade ago. On Friday, Iraqi Kurds questioned some Turkish officers in civilian clothes at gunpoint, according to the Turkish military.
The military warned that any action against the Turkish soldiers in Iraq would be “responded to at the highest level,” after the incident in Suleimaniyah.
Turks accuse Iraqi Kurds, who once fought alongside the Turkish soldiers against the PKK in Iraq, of supporting the separatist rebels and worry that the war in Iraq could lead to Iraq’s disintegration and the creation of a Kurdish state in the north.
The Turkish army has been battling Kurdish rebels since 1984. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey’s military chief, said his soldiers were ready to stage a cross-border offensive and asked the government for directives about whether to confront local Iraqi Kurds if needed.
Turkish intelligence reports say Iraqi Kurds were building defences, and imams of mosques in northern Iraq were calling on Iraqi Kurds to resist any Turkish incursion and defend their sovereignty.
Such a confrontation between two US allies could raise tensions between Turkey and the United States, which is struggling to stabilise the country and defeat an insurgency. US commanders have not pursued the Kurdish rebels in remote mountain areas of northern Iraq, one of the few stable areas of the country.
Turkey had expected the United States and Iraq to eliminate guerrillas’ safe havens, destroy their communications, cut support lines of arms and explosives as well as financial transactions in accordance with United Nations Security Council directives regarding terror groups.
Turkey has staged several incursions into northern Iraq but has never penetrated as deep as the main rebel base on the Qandil Mountain, on the Iranian-Iraqi border. There, the guerrilla group trains and indoctrinates fighters at a large tent and cave complex, complete with ovens, classrooms, gardens and generators, according to intelligence reports and propaganda films by the group.