By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 18, 2007
ANKARA, Turkey, Oct. 17 -- The Turkish parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly authorized cross-border military attacks in northern Iraq against Kurdish separatist rebels, as world leaders pleaded for restraint.
Lawmakers voted 507 to 19 to give Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan permission to order strategic strikes or large-scale invasions of Iraq for a one-year period. Erdogan has said he will not order an immediate attack.
Throughout 2 1/2 hours of debate, legislators expressed frustration that the United States and Iraq have not kept promises to curb the activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, which the United States and European Union have classified as a terrorist organization.
As the votes were tallied in Turkey's modernistic legislative chamber here, President Bush told reporters at a White House news conference that "we are making it very clear to Turkey that we don't think it is in their interest to send troops into Iraq."
In the hours leading up to the vote, Turkish leaders were besieged with last-minute telephone calls from across the globe, imploring against military action on grounds that it could inflame the only relatively stable region of war-ravaged Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki telephoned Erdogan, asking for more time to take action against PKK rebels who have largely been allowed to operate freely in northern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He said he has given "strict instructions" to the regional Kurdish administration in Iraq's north to crack down on PKK operations and said Iraqi forces could join the Turkish army in military operations "if necessary," according to the Anatolian news agency. Erdogan's office denied there was an offer of joint military action.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer phoned Turkish President Abdullah Gul and urged Turkey to "exercise the greatest possible restraint, particularly in this time of great tension," James Appathurai, a spokesman for the alliance, said at a briefing in Brussels. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO.
Gul rebuffed Scheffer, according to Turkish accounts, echoing the comments of many lawmakers during Wednesday's legislative debate in saying, "Terrorism cannot be presented as excusable in any way and Turkey will obviously take any measure to stop these heinous attacks," Turkish news agencies reported.
Only the small, pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party opposed the parliamentary resolution, arguing that military action would worsen the economic plight of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.
Turkish lawmakers on Wednesday accused the United States and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq of giving PKK leaders and fighters free rein to run their headquarters and training camps and plot attacks on Turkey, despite a 2003 agreement to assist in curbing rebel operations inside Iraq.
"They are furious, and they wish to see somebody get a hold of the PKK," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "Ideally it would be the Kurdish government, and that's who we are pressuring to deal with the terrorists in their midst."
In Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, people expressed anger over the Turkish moves. Faisal Muhammad Abbas, 28, a university student, said that Turkey wants to bring "disaster" to his part of the country. "They think if Kurdistan will continue improving in Iraq this will be a motive for the Kurds in Turkey to call for the same thing and fight for it." Some Kurds say they have already fled their homes because of Turkish shelling.
A U.S. general and Turkish general assigned to oversee U.S.-Iraqi efforts against the PKK left their jobs this year, frustrated that neither Americans nor Iraqis placed any priority on the problem, U.S. and Turkish officials said.
Turkish officials said Wednesday that Iraqi efforts to shut down PKK operations and financial accounts and turn over leaders to Turkey could help avert military action.
Turkey has had limited numbers of troops in northern Iraq since before the 2003 invasion. Morrell said there are now two or three battalions that function mainly as observers. "They are pretty much confined to their bases," he said. "Their movements are limited and must be coordinated with us."
Although the Turkish government now has the authority to strike, some Turkish officials and military experts warned that the military would face serious obstacles in all types of cross-border action, including many of the same problems the U.S. military has experienced in Iraq.
Turkish troops have conducted 24 cross-border attacks in northern Iraq since the conflict with PKK rebels began 23 years ago, according to Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek. That included several operations with tens of thousands of soldiers and heavy aerial bombardments.
The military never routed PKK rebels from northern Iraq. Now the task will be harder because the PKK has been embraced by the local Kurdish population and its authorities, officials and analysts said.
Retired Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu said the military's first choice of missions is likely to be repeated "short-time operations," using attack helicopters or other aircraft to attack PKK cells.
He cautioned that those kinds of attacks require extremely precise, difficult-to-obtain intelligence. He said bombing operations and targeted attacks are also treacherous because PKK members blend easily into the civilian population.
Another option is a large-scale military invasion to establish a buffer between PKK strongholds in Iraq and the Turkish border and to attempt to root out guerrillas. But similar attacks in the 1990s failed.
"The worst-case scenario is to create a buffer zone and stay there," said Mehmet Ali Birand, a political commentator with close ties to the military. "They know they will be hampered there not by the PKK, but the pesh mergas," the local Iraqi Kurdish militia forces that assisted the United States in the north during the invasion of Iraq.
"It will be easy to get in, but very difficult to get out," Birand said.
"We've been hearing from the military commanders this will not mean the end of the PKK," said Sami Kohen, a columnist for the daily Turkish newspaper Milliyet. "What they say is they need to be there. They need to get into their hideouts. . . . There is no other way."
Kohen dismissed calls for restraint by international leaders. "There is a very widespread and strong feeling that the U.S. and the West in general are applying double standards," he said. "They find it justified for themselves, but when it comes to Turkey in a cross-border action that should be considered legitimate self-defense, they want to deny this right to the Turks. It comes to a point where you lose patience."
PKK rebels have escalated attacks inside Turkey in the last two weeks, killing 31 people including 13 military commandos and a busload of civilians. The Turkish public was enraged by the attacks, which were the deadliest in more than a decade, increasing pressure for cross-border action.
"Today the Turkish government is in a most critical and most difficult position," said commentator Birand. "If they do something, they will get burned from the American side. If they don't do anything, they'll get burned by public opinion."
Turkish anger over the U.S. failure to act against the PKK was compounded by a U.S. House committee vote last week to declare as genocide the deaths and disappearances of 1.5 million Armenians during the final days of the Turkish Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. The White House has urged congressional leaders to put the measure on hold, and it has not gone to a floor vote.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear a Turkish invasion of Iraq could encourage neighboring countries -- including Iran and Syria, which both have Kurdish minorities supporting autonomy -- to launch attacks against other rebel groups across their borders. Both Iran and Turkey have been firing artillery shells into northern Iraq for the past several weeks.
Turkey, Syria and Iran share concerns that Kurdish groups in the region could make a push for an independent Kurdish state, carving chunks out of each of their countries. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was visiting Ankara on Wednesday, was the only international leader to openly support Turkey's right to stage a cross-border offensive.
"We understand that such an operation would be aimed toward a certain group which attacks Turkish soldiers," Assad said. "We support decisions that Turkey has on its agenda. We are backing them."
Staff writers Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Dlovan Brwari in Dahuk, Iraq, contributed to this report.