By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 25 -- Turkish troops and Kurdish guerrillas clashed Monday for the fifth consecutive day in two areas of northern Iraq, the Turkish military said, as senior Iraqi officials warned that a widened and prolonged incursion could lead to serious repercussions for the region.
In a statement, Turkey's general staff said its forces killed 41 Kurdish guerrillas in fighting Monday, bringing the total killed to 153 since the launch of the biggest Turkish offensive into Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The military also reported two more Turkish troops killed Monday, bringing the total to 17.
"Close combat with the terrorists is continuing in two separate zones," the Turkish military said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. "The troops in the critical zones of the operation were reinforced and some of the troops were replaced by fresh forces."
PKK leaders in northern Iraq reported casualty numbers that diverged sharply from the Turkish figures. Mizgin Ahmed, of the party's 31-member governing council, said that a total of four guerrillas had been killed and two wounded since the incursion began and that PKK forces had killed 81 Turkish soldiers.
Ahmed said Turkish forces had not been able to advance into Iraq beyond their initial push of about three miles. "We have enough numbers to be able to fight their forces," she said in an interview in PKK-controlled territory near the town of Raniyah in northern Iraq. "We have a right to defend ourselves and we will defend ourselves to the end."
The guerrillas have long used Iraq's forbidding mountains to stage attacks in Turkey, first in an attempt to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkey but now largely in the pursuit of Kurdish autonomy. Turkish forces launched the incursion last Thursday following a series of PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers and civilians. For years, Turkey's government has complained that Iraq's government was unwilling to contain the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States.
In Baghdad, national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie declared at a news conference Monday that the fighting could have "very serious consequences."
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani warned Turkey against any expansion.
"The operations are still limited operations, and the government has expressed its concern," Bolani said. "If the operation is widened, definitely Iraq will defend its sovereignty and territory."
He said the United States should do more to encourage the Turks to withdraw. U.S. troops "are the greatest force on the ground. They have certain obligations," Bolani said. "They could do more."
Contradicting statements by other Iraqi officials, he said Turkey did not consult with Iraq before launching the operation. "No Iraqi official would agree to an incursion across his borders," Bolani said.
When asked whether he was concerned that forces of the Kurdish regional government would ignore Iraq's central government and take unilateral action against the Turkish troops, Bolani replied that Iraq's constitution would not allow such a confrontation. "But if the targeting was expanded, definitely no one can keep silent," he added.
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek stressed that the operation was against only PKK guerrillas, not Iraqi civilians or Iraq's government.
"When this operation has hit its targets, our units will return home," he said, without elaborating.
Funerals for three Turkish soldiers drew thousands in Ankara on Monday, bringing traffic in the center of the city to a standstill. Some Turkish soldiers wore puffy white winter camouflage uniforms to show solidarity with their comrades fighting in Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkish forces in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's eastern Kurdish region, broke up a fiery protest against the offensive in northern Iraq. It was the largest opposition protest since the incursion began.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed four Shiite pilgrims and injured 15, the third incident to target thousands of worshipers traveling to the southern holy city of Karbala to commemorate one of Shiite Islam's most sacred days -- the end of the 40th day of mourning after the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed in a 7th-century battle.
Meanwhile, the death toll from a suicide bombing near the southern city of Iskandariyah targeting pilgrims on Sunday rose to 56, making it one of the deadliest assaults this year.
In the town of Samarra on Monday, a man in a wheelchair detonated explosives he was carrying, killing deputy police commander Abdul Jabbar Rabei Salih al-Jubori in his office, police said. In the city of Buhriz, in Diyala province, gunmen ambushed and killed eight Iraqi soldiers, police said.
Correspondents Joshua Partlow in northern Iraq and Ellen Knickmeyer in Ankara and special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.