By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 1, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 29 -- Turkey announced Friday that it had pulled its troops out of northern Iraq, ending an eight-day invasion to pursue Kurdish guerrillas that raised tensions with the Iraqi government and fears of a regional conflict. The withdrawal came one day after both President Bush and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged a swift end to the offensive.
Turkish officials denied they had been pressured into ending their country's most extensive operation in northern Iraq in more than a decade. They said they had completed their objective of weakening the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which for decades has fought for Kurdish rights and autonomy in Turkey from mountain bases in northern Iraq.
"The Turkish Armed Forces decided when to begin and end the operation on its own deliberation and its decision is not influenced from outside or inside," Turkey's chief of general staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, said in a statement.
It was unclear whether Turkey had completely pulled out its troops Friday. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari declared in a telephone interview that "all the Turkish troops that took part in the incursion have pulled out."
But a senior U.S. military official expressed caution, noting that it would take time for the Turkish military to withdraw. "We've seen some movement of Turkish forces back to Turkey. But it's hard to call that a complete withdrawal at this point," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A lengthy or expanded incursion risked straining relations between the Kurdish regional authorities and Iraq's central government, the official said. Kurdish authorities had expressed deep anger at the invasion and were considering taking unilateral action against the Turks.
"Our concern is, don't let it get messy. Keep it precise as possible," the official recalled telling a Turkish delegation that had visited Baghdad this week. "Stay only as long as you have to. Not a day longer."
The incursion followed 3 1/2 months of intensified Turkish sorties against PKK bases. Turkish leaders have credited the Bush administration's agreement in November to provide more U.S. satellite imagery and other real-time intelligence with much of their success in the latest operations.
But the offensives also have put the United States between two of its allies -- Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. American and Iraqi Kurdish leaders have expressed concern that the Turkish incursion would convulse the north, which has been relatively stable even as violence engulfed much of the rest of Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On Friday, Turkey's military said it had struck hundreds of PKK installations during the eight days of air and ground attacks. Sites partially or completely destroyed included 59 antiaircraft positions, six training camps, 12 command centers and more than 300 caves and other hideouts, Turkey's military said.
The military added that its troops had killed 230 Kurdish guerrillas and sent others fleeing the area of attack. Up to 2,000 Turkish troops had crossed the border for some phases of the operation, Turkey's Sabah daily reported. The operation saw its fiercest fighting around PKK camps, Turkish media reported.
"Obviously, the terrorist organization cannot be neutralized completely by an operation in a single region," Buyukanit said. But he added that the operation served to prevent the guerrillas from continuing to use the mountains of northern Iraq "as a permanent and secure base."
"With only a matter of days, they would have some effect but obviously not complete annihilation of the PKK," said the senior U.S. military official. "I don't suspect they made a huge impact on the PKK."
On Friday, a senior PKK official said the guerrillas defended not only their fellow Kurds but Iraq and its government.
"We consider this withdrawal a political, military and strategic victory despite the casualties we suffered, and we were able to draw attention to the Kurdish case," said Ahmed Denize, a senior PKK spokesman.
The early morning withdrawal Friday, first reported by Kurdish forces that saw Turkish troops rolling back into Turkey, came without advance notice. Turkish analysts had predicted the operation would last for two more weeks.
Many Turks, especially in western cities such as Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, strongly supported the crackdown. During some months last year, the PKK guerrillas killed more Turkish troops than Americans lost in Iraq in the same period.
In the United States, "the more casualties you suffer, the less support" for an operation, retired Gen. Haldun Solmazturk said in Ankara. "It's the other way entirely in Turkey."
Gates and others have stressed that military options alone cannot quell the decades-old Kurdish guerrilla movement and that Turkey must address Kurdish grievances. Turkey has long sought to assimilate the Kurds of its southeast, repressing broadcasts and schooling in Kurdish. Turkey's current government has eased the language restrictions slightly. For its part, Turkey insists Iraq's Kurdish leaders must begin denying the PKK its havens.
Few expect the cross-border operations to have ended. "More to come," Solmazturk predicted.
The PKK has vowed to retaliate for the incursion. "The Turkish military forces withdrew, but we will not let this military campaign pass without punishment," said Denize, the PKK spokesman.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, reports surfaced that Iraq's three-member presidency council had approved the execution of Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, or "Chemical Ali," one of Saddam Hussein's most ruthless henchmen. Last June, Majeed and two associates were sentenced to death for committing genocide and crimes against humanity during the Anfal operation in Iraq's Kurdish region in the late 1980s.
But the presidency council had blocked Majeed's execution because it would have meant also putting to death Sultan Hashim al-Taie, a highly respected former Sunni defense minister, whose execution was opposed by some top Iraqi leaders and U.S. military commanders. If Majeed's execution orders go through, it is unclear what would happen to Taie. "The only thing I can tell you is that it's not officially announced yet," said Naseer al-Ani, chairman for the presidency council.
Gunmen abducted a Chaldean Catholic archbishop soon after he left Mass in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, according to an Associated Press report, the latest in what church members called a series of attacks against Iraq's small Christian community. The gunmen killed three people who were with Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, said Iraqi Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul Sattar, a spokesman for the local police.
Knickmeyer reported from Istanbul. Correspondent Amit R. Paley and special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.