By Joshua Partlow and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 22, 2008 6:11 PM
DAHUK, Iraq, Feb. 22 -- After months of sporadic shelling against the mountain hideouts of Kurdish guerrilla fighters, Turkey sent tanks and ground troops into northern Iraq on Thursday afternoon in an incursion that quickly escalated the tension between the neighboring countries.
The incursion marked the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that Turkish soldiers in large numbers crossed onto Iraqi soil. The offensive alarmed Iraqi officials, who have condemned violence by the separatist Kurdish guerrillas in the past, but do not want to see a large-scale Turkish invasion.
"This has been a serious escalation," said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, in an interview. "We hope that this will end as soon as possible for fear of escalation or any minor mistakes that would lead to a wider problem."
After hours of bombing and shelling by Turkish artillery and warplanes, Turkish soldiers crossed the Habur mountain pass after dusk on Thursday evening into a sparsely populated corner of northern Iraq where the Kurdish separatist guerrillas have sought refuge and used as a base for attacks within Turkey. The number of Turkish forces in Iraq remained unclear on Friday, but U.S. and Iraqi officials estimated that the amount was somewhere between 500 and 1,000 soldiers. Turkish television reported the number of soldiers was as high as 10,000.
Navy Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said he was unaware if Turkish soldiers fought any battles inside Iraq.
"I don't know how far they have advanced or precisely how deep they are going to go," he said. "They said they will work to avoid collateral damage against infrastructure and civilians. We all agree that they are going after a terrorist group."
But Ahmed Denize, a member of the separatist rebel group, known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK for its Kurdish initials, said that small teams of guerrillas fought the Turkish soldiers throughout the day on Friday. Turkish soldiers destroyed three bridges during their movement into Iraq, he said. He also claimed that PKK fighters killed 20 Turkish soldiers, but that account could not be verified.
"We had information that they are coming so we spread out in small groups and opened fire on them," he said. "The fight is still going on."
The Kurdish soldiers in Iraq, known as the Pesh Merga, were on high alert on Friday, officials said. Kurdish news agencies reported that Pesh Merga were dispatched from the Kurdish capital of Erbil to the northern city of Dahuk. In mountain towns along the way, such as Sarsank and Anishka, the camouflaged soldiers in maroon berets were abundant: filling up fleets of white pick-up trucks at gas stations, sitting in groups along the side of the road, taking photographs of themselves overlooking the vast mountain valleys. At a Pesh Merga base in Skren, commanders declined to discuss the troop movements but confirmed that the soldiers out in the streets were new arrivals.
The conflict between the PKK and Turkey dates back decades and has claimed thousands of lives. The Kurdish fighters want more rights for the large Kurdish population in Turkey and also at times have advocated an independent Kurdish state in the region. The smoldering tensions flared up in October when Kurdish rebels killed 12 Turkish soldiers near the border with northern Iraq. Turkish politicians threatened an invasion and have maintained they will do what is necessary to protect their people from rebel attacks. Throughout the fall and winter, Turkey bombed PKK positions along the border region but, until Thursday, had stopped short of crossing into Iraqi territory.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara that the troops were making every effort to avoid civilian casualties. "We have always welcomed and extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people during their difficult times, and they are friends and family of Turkey," he said.
Turkey has long maintained several small military bases in northern Iraq. As Turkey was bombarding Iraqi territory on Thursday, Turkish tanks rolled out of one of their bases, but were blocked by the Pesh Merga, according to Iraqi officials. After a tense standoff, both sides retreated.
The incident reflects the fine line that the Kurdistan Regional Government is walking in dealing with Turkey's efforts against the rebel group. The public stance of the Kurdish government in recent months has been that it will try to isolate and weaken the PKK but does not have the capability to participate in offensives to drive out the guerrillas, who live in rugged terrain along steep rocky roads. The Pesh Merga has blocked access to PKK territory for journalists, and Iraqi officials say the Pesh Merga has made it more difficult for the guerrillas to move throughout northern Iraq.
By refusing to confront the PKK, the Kurdish government avoids the potentially incendiary step of starting an intra-Kurdish battle within Iraq. At the same time the PKK has very little political clout in Iraq and has been publicly condemned by all sides.
"We have not been a threat and we do not pose a threat to Turkey. We've done what we can in order to help the situation," said Falah Mustafa, head of the foreign relations department of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "We care about this, we understand that this is a problem, but this is not the right approach to solve it. It only brings more destruction and brings more problems."
The Bush administration has been an active partner in Turkey's fight against the Kurdish rebels. Turkey has grown more aggressive after President Bush called the PKK a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States. The U.S. military has been sharing intelligence to help target rebel positions and is apprised of Turkey's military movements.
President Gul called President Bush early Thursday to tell him of the incursion, according to Turkey's military. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Turkey to keep the operation short and "keep in mind that while the terrorists need, obviously, to be stopped from doing what they're doing, that there really can't be a destabilization of the region."
"This is something that we were aware of in advance, and as you know the U.S. agrees with Turkey that the PKK is a terrorist organization and is an enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters.
Kurdish officials said they have lived with a U.S.-sanctioned bombing campaign against the rebels but feel the incursion is a violation of their sovereignty and will defend their territory if necessary. Falah Mustafa, of the foreign relations department of the Kurdish government, said the Americans should halt the Turkish advance.
"We believe that they have a responsibility to stop this incursion which is not in anybody's interest," he said.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report from Cairo. Special correspondent Dlovan Brwari in Dahuk and other Washington Post staff in Iraq also contributed.