BAGHDADÂ – Iraq fears that a prolonged Turkish incursion into northern Iraq could trigger clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga security forces, the country’s national security adviser said on Monday.
Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said such fighting could have “very serious consequences” for a part of Iraq that has been relatively stable compared with the rest of the country.
Ankara launched a ground incursion on Thursday in a remote part of Iraq’s largely autonomous region of Kurdistan to hunt down Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels. The PKK uses the area as a base to stage attacks inside Turkey in pursuit of its goal of a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey.
“The…longer Turkish soldiers stay inside Iraqi territory, the more likely this is going to happen,” Rubaie told reporters in Baghdad when asked if he was concerned about clashes between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces breaking out.
“We need to avoid this at any cost. This has very serious consequences even if this happens by accident.”
A Kurdish security official said Turkish troops and PKK rebels clashed during the night in the Amadiya area, 10 km (6 miles) south of the border. He did not know if there had been any fighting on Monday.
He said the Turkish military had shelled PKK targets on Monday, after launching several air strikes overnight.
So far the battle-hardened Peshmerga have stayed on the sidelines of the Turkish military operation, which is taking place in a sparsely populated mountainous region. Kurdish officials regard the area as outside their control.
While Iraqi Kurds have little sympathy for the aims of the PKK, there is widespread anger over the incursion.
The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan has said any targeting of Kurdish civilians would result in “massive resistance” by its Peshmerga forces, which have been put on a state of alert.
Turkey says it is carrying out a limited operation against the PKK, which it blames for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle in 1984.
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Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek said Turkish troops would withdraw once they had completed their mission.
“Turkey tried hard in the past to avoid this outcome (of military action)… The operation targets only the separatist terrorist organization, we have no other target,” Cicek told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting in Ankara.
“When this operation has hit its targets, our units will return home,” he added, without giving a timeframe.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has postponed a planned trip to Africa this week due to the offensive, Turkey’s state Anatolian news agency added.
U.S. officials say Ankara has given assurances it will do all it can to avoid civilian casualties in northern Iraq.
There have been no reports of civilian casualties, but residents in villages near the border say they are being targeted in Turkish air strikes and artillery barrages.
In a worrying sign, Turkish ground troops have come face to face with Peshmerga forces twice in recent days.
In one incident, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official said Peshmerga soldiers stopped Turkish tanks leaving a base just inside northern Iraq. Turkey has kept small contingents of troops in northern Iraq since earlier offensives in the 1990s.
Iraq’s government said on Sunday Turkey should withdraw its troops as soon as possible and urged Ankara to sit down with Baghdad for talks to resolve the crisis over the PKK. It said Turkey was sending a special envoy to Baghdad on Wednesday.
Iraq has called for a diplomatic solution to the PKK presence, saying it has taken some measures to deal with the rebels but is focused on trying to stabilize the rest of Iraq.
Ankara says it has the right under international law to hunt and kill members of the PKK, which is classed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.