US struggling with Turkish demands to counter Kurdish fighters

The United States needs to step up efforts to prevent Kurdish separatists from operating cross-border attacks on Turkey from Iraq, US and Turkish officials said.The issue has taken on greater urgency as Kurdish guerrillas have escalated attacks in Turkey and provoked Turkish threats to launch a military incursion into Iraq — a move that could have serious implications for US efforts to stabilise Iraq.

The United States classifies the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as a terrorist organisation, and has been working with Turkey to combat the threat, US officials said. But they had few examples of success over the PKK to point to.

Responding to criticism of US inaction from Turkey, US Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested the United States was focused on its own mission in Iraq.

“We continue to work with Turkey,” Wiggins said. “Our military’s focus is on Iraq and the situation in Iraq.” He said the threatened Turkish incursion into northern Iraq “would not be helpful at this time”. Turkey’s military last week asked the government to set political guidelines for an incursion into northern Iraq, saying such a move may be necessary as the US and the Iraqi governments had failed to stop attacks across the border.

Tension over such an incursion has intensified as Turkey approaches a July 22 election. The issue is sensitive in Turkey, which has been battling the PKK since 1984 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

The PKK has escalated attacks this year, killing at least 67 soldiers so far. More than 110 rebels were killed in the same period.

During the 1990s, Turkish troops penetrated Iraqi territory several times, sometimes with as many as 50,000 troops. The Turkish forces withdrew, leaving behind about 2,000 soldiers to monitor rebel activities.

Turkish officials have complained to Washington that the US was not helping to stem PKK activity.

“Clearly our expectations are not being met,” a Turkish diplomat in Washington said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the record. “We are using every channel to express our unhappiness about what is not happening.” Meanwhile, Turkey, a key NATO ally, continues to provide vital support to US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq through Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, one of the most important US military assets in the region.

Privately, some US officials are raising concern that the United States has not moved aggressively to allay Turkish concerns. They say US policy makers are underestimating the risk that Turkey’s pursuit of the PKK in Iraq could lead to a wider conflict with the Kurdish forces, which are a key part of the Iraqi army.

One senior US diplomatic official said the likelihood of Turkey invading northern Iraq before the July 22 election was very high.

The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the US government has not focused enough attention or resources to address Turkish concerns.

“I think we ought to be doing everything we can to counter the PKK,” the official said. “The biggest problem is getting the US to do what it should do.” The official said inaction by the US risked alienating Turkey.

“I think that 70 million Turks are important,” the official said.

Capturing PKK fighters in Iraq might mollify the forces in Turkey in favour of an invasion, the official said.

Some analysts believe the United States is too distracted by its efforts to stabilise Iraq. A move against the PKK would require shifting military resources to northern Iraq, a region that has been relatively calm from Washington’s perspective.

“Arresting PKK members in northern Iraq is not so easy,” said Mark Parris, a former US ambassador to Turkey now a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution. “A lot of crockery can be broken in that part of the world.” Analysts say the US also has been reluctant to pressure Kurdish politicians in Iraq to crack down on the PKK, as Washington considers them reliable allies in a chaotic political atmosphere.

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