Turks urge action in Iraq

Leaders navigate ire at home, call for caution from abroad

October 27, 2007|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,Los Angeles Times

ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- The Turkish government is coming under enormous domestic pressure to crush Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, but even as they shell rebel positions and move tens of thousands of troops to the border, leaders are reluctant to invade because of the international isolation and military quagmire likely to follow.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prefer to avoid a full-scale invasion, according to people familiar with his thinking, and is pursuing diplomatic options. His government is also considering economic punishment by rerouting valuable trade away from the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region where the rebels have found safe harbor.

Yesterday, Turkey warned that its "patience has run out"' and demanded the extradition from Iraq of rebel leaders.

Erdogan and his government want to show that they are exhausting diplomatic channels while waving the military threat, the sources say, because of the scornful international repercussions that would befall Turkey if it is seen as having opened a new battlefront in the only relatively peaceful part of Iraq.

"You can lessen the public pressure with an all-out invasion, but it would be a short-term gain," said Turkish military expert Lale Sariibrahimoglu. "The government and the armed forces are well aware of the repercussions. This is a serious test of democracy and diplomacy."

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey's top military commander, was quoted yesterday by private broadcaster NTV as saying that the government would wait until Erdogan returns from a visit with President Bush in early November before deciding on whether to launch a military offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan.

An invasion would also risk dragging Turkey into a quagmire that would play into the hands of ardent Turkish nationalists bent on undermining the pro-Islamic government. Some of the loudest war drums are being beaten by extreme nationalist politicians with a certain sway in parliament and who would no doubt raise their voices further if a military effort proved ineffective.

Past experiences make clear that swift success is by no means guaranteed.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, rebels avoided eradication repeatedly during attacks by Turkey in the 1990s, hiding safely in the rugged mountain terrain on the Iraqi side of the border. With winter coming, the chances of a decisive Turkish victory are even less certain.

For days, tens of thousands of Turkish troops have been massing at the 200-mile-long southern border with Iraq, and commandos have deployed several miles into Iraq in "hot pursuit" of rebels. Combat helicopters and F-16 fighter planes in daily sorties are shelling purported guerrilla hide-outs and escape routes.

At the same time, Turkey is pursuing a feverish round of diplomacy, looking to Baghdad and Washington to uproot the PKK and stop its violence. Turkey's foreign minister rushed to Baghdad, an Iraqi delegation arrived in Ankara on Thursday for crisis talks that were to continue today, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to come to Turkey next week.

The latest Turkish military action comes in response to Sunday's ambush by the PKK of an army patrol in which 12 soldiers were killed and eight captured in a southern Turkish province about three miles from the border with Iraq. But hostilities along the remote border have been building for months.

Every day since the ambush, thousands of Turks have taken to the streets in cities across the nation to demand military action. The clamor became so intense that the government attempted to restrict television coverage of soldiers' funerals. Yesterday, mosques were instructed to read a sermon calling for brotherhood and discouraging citizens from turning on one another.

The public outcry almost always goes hand-in-hand with anti-Americanism; many Turks are convinced that the U.S. is aiding the PKK or, at the least, turning a blind eye to rebel activities - charges Washington denies.

The U.S. maintains that its troops in Iraq are stretched thin and cannot sustain a significant presence in largely peaceful Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. officials are demanding that Iraqi authorities crack down on the PKK, but the Iraqis have not done so.

Yesterday, Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said he planned to do "absolutely nothing"' to counter PKK activity, nor was he tracking their movements or reinforcing his troops in the region. Mixon, speaking to Pentagon reporters by videoconference, also said he had not seen Iraqi Kurdish authorities acting against the rebels.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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