Turkey Sends Soldiers Into N. Iraq
Saturday, February 23, 2008
DAHUK, Iraq, Feb. 22 -- After months of sporadic shelling targeting the mountain hideouts of Kurdish guerrilla fighters, Turkey sent tanks and ground troops into northern Iraq on Thursday afternoon in an incursion that 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 have 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," Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said 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 via the Habur mountain pass after dusk Thursday into a sparsely populated corner of northern Iraq that the separatist rebel group, known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has used as a refuge and a base for attacks inside Turkey. The number of Turkish troops in Iraq remained unclear Friday, but U.S. and Iraqi officials estimated it at 500 to 1,000. Turkish television reported that the number was as high as 10,000.
Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said he was unaware whether Turkish soldiers had fought any battles in 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 PKK, said that small teams of guerrillas had fought the Turkish soldiers throughout the day Friday. Turkish soldiers destroyed three bridges during their movement into Iraq, he said. He also said PKK fighters had killed about 20 Turkish soldiers, but that claim 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 Turkish military reported that 24 members of the PKK were killed, along with five Turkish soldiers, according to the semiofficial Anatolia news agency.
The soldiers of northern Iraq's Kurdish regional government were on high alert Friday, officials said. Kurdish news agencies reported that the soldiers, known as the pesh merga, were dispatched from the Kurdish capital of Irbil 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 fleets of white pickup trucks at gas stations, sitting in groups along the side of the road or 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 in the streets were new arrivals.
The conflict between the PKK and Turkey dates back decades and has claimed thousands of lives. The Kurdish guerrillas want more rights for the large Kurdish population in Turkey and have also, at times, advocated an independent Kurdish state in the region. The smoldering tensions flared up in October when Kurdish rebels killed 12 Turkish soldiers near Turkey's border with northern Iraq. Turkish politicians threatened an invasion and have said 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 but until Thursday had stopped short of crossing into Iraqi territory.