Turkey Intensifies Border Operations

Members of the Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga militia arrive in the border city of Dahuk as tensions with Turkey escalate. (AP)
By Joshua Partlow and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, Oct. 24 -- Turkey has ramped up military operations along its southern border with Iraq, with aircraft reportedly bombarding the mountainous terrain on Wednesday, part of a growing confrontation that threatens to open a new northern front in the Iraq war.

While intense diplomatic efforts continued to prevent large-scale violence, Turkish military helicopters and warplanes attacked hideouts thought to be used by Kurdish rebels as they travel between Iraq and Turkey, the Turkish state-run Anatolian news agency reported.

The Turkish operations were taking place in four predominantly Kurdish provinces of eastern Turkey and "in the border area with Iraq," the news agency said. An Associated Press cameraman saw helicopters and several F-16 warplanes take off from a Turkish air base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, the AP reported.

There were conflicting reports about exactly when and where the Turkish military carried out its attacks. Residents in northern Iraq described bombings Wednesday in the Mergasur area on the Turkish side of the border and said artillery shells had crashed down a day earlier near several villages inside Iraq. Much of the borderland is sparsely populated, accessible only by narrow dirt roads, making it difficult to confirm the extent of violence in the area.

The reported bombing came as U.S. and Iraqi officials pleaded with Turkey to refrain from a major cross-border incursion to combat guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish separatist group operating from bases in Turkey and northern Iraq that is seeking a separate Kurdish state.

"We are concerned about the continuing skirmishes that are happening up there and the terrorist attacks that are being lodged by the PKK against the Turks," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who added: "We continue to urge both sides to exercise restraint."

A spokesman for the PKK, Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi, said Turkish planes did fly into Iraq but denied that there was bombing in the Mergasur area. A senior official of the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq also said the area was not attacked by Turkish planes.

In Baghdad, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking American commander in Iraq, told reporters he could not verify the reports of Turkish aircraft crossing into Iraqi airspace.

Turkey's parliament last week approved a resolution authorizing a military offensive into Iraq to pursue the guerrilla fighters who live along both sides of the border and are accused of killing dozens of Turkish citizens in recent weeks. The prospects for such an invasion appeared to gain momentum after PKK fighters killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers in an ambush Sunday. The PKK also claims to have captured eight Turkish soldiers, and video footage of captives was broadcast on Iraqi and Turkish television stations.

Residents of northern Iraq say that both Turkey and Iran have shelled areas within northern Iraq sporadically for years. Turkey's military also has staged several raids into Iraq in the past under what it says is the right of "hot pursuit" against PKK rebels.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long emergency meeting of Turkey's National Security Council, Turkish leaders moved closer to economic sanctions against the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which Turkey accuses of harboring the rebels. The security council members recommended unspecified economic measures against those entities that "directly or indirectly support the separatist terrorist organization in the region," a council statement said.

Turkey is a leading trade partner with northern Iraq, one of the few regions of the country that has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Turkish construction firms are responsible for 90 percent of rebuilding projects in Iraq's Kurdish north, officials there estimate, and Turkish companies are taking part in many private projects as well in a post-invasion building boom in the north.

Wednesday's statement by the Turkish security council did not name northern Iraq. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned the possibility of sanctions against the Iraqi north on Tuesday. Officials of his governing party have said measures could include cutting electricity to northern Iraq and restricting traffic through border crossings.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States intends to activate a trilateral commission, to involve Turkey, Iraq and the United States, to prevent future cross-border attacks. Rice acknowledged difficulties in containing the PKK in the rugged mountains but said, "That isn't an excuse."

"The Iraqis have to deal seriously with this and so do we," Rice told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "And we've tried to reassure the Turks that we will do what we can to prevent that kind of attack again."

Knickmeyer reported from Cairo. Special correspondents Dlovan Brwari in Dahuk, Iraq, and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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