Bracing for a Turkish Strike in Iraq

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Fatih Saribas / Reuters

Turkish army commandos walk down a road during a routine patrol near Uludere in the southeastern Turkish province of Sirnak, October 17, 2007.

Turkey has voted itself the right to launch cross-border military attacks on Kurdish separatist fighters holed up in Northern Iraq, but it has not yet decided to exercise that right. The Turkish Parliament on Wednesday authorized military operations into neighboring Iraq to hunt down guerrillas of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, which continues to launch attacks inside Turkey that have killed more than 30 Turks in recent weeks.

Although Turkey has sent troops on similar missions in northern Iraq on up to two dozen previous occasions during the 1980s and 90s, this would be the first such incursion since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and took responsibility for security in Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted that the vote — which gives the government the authority to determine the "scope, limits and duration" of any operation — does not necessarily mean an incursion is imminent. Turkey, he said, "will act with common sense and determination when necessary and when the time is ripe."

U.S. and Iraqi leaders, fearful of the precedent and potential destabilization created by Iraq's neighbors conducting cross-border military actions on its territory, are hoping that talks between the governments of Turkey and Iraq can forestall military action. Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, who met with Erdogan in Ankara Tuesday, urged that "a political solution must be given priority to resolve this critical issue." And President George W. Bush said Wednesday that the U.S. is "making it clear to Turkey it is not in their interest to send more troops in. There is a better way to deal with the issue."

But Turkish analysts say the political atmosphere in Turkey increases the likelihood of some kind of incursion. Mehmet Ali Kislali, a veteran commentator with the Radikal newspaper who covers the Turkish military, told TIME that the most likely scenario now is Turkish air strikes against strongholds of the PKK in the Qandil mountains near the Iranian border, followed by mopping-up operations by special forces units from a base just inside the Iraq border, to be established after a "large-scale initial land offensive." He added that "as far as is possible, Turkish troops will not venture into heavily populated territory. This will be a surgical operation. Turkey's aim is not to invade Iraq."

Turkey has repeatedly stressed that its goal is to root out the PKK, and that it wants to avoid clashes with Iraqi forces under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish administration. But U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that Turkish forces, whatever their intention, could clash with Iraqi Kurdish forces, making the conflict difficult to contain. Turkey accuses Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish administration, led by Massoud Barzani, of sheltering the separatist guerrillas, and some see it as a hostile entity. Retired Turkish general Riza Kucukoglu told TIME: "The PKK is the enemy. But there are also the forces of Barzani, which have created a terrorist haven for them to operate in. Where do you draw this line? "

The official Turkish position is to demand that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities act against the PKK. "The central government in Iraq and the regional government in northern Iraq must put a thick wall between themselves and the terrorist organization," Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said Tuesday, referring to the PKK. "Those who are unable to distance themselves from terrorism cannot avoid being adversely affected by the struggle against terrorism."

Washington has so far refused Turkish requests to send American troops to root out the PKK. Instead, the U.S. is urging talks between Turkish and Iraqi leaders to find a peaceful solution. For Turkey, that would require that the Iraqi Kurds distance themselves from the PKK, shut down its offices and make some attempt to crack down on their bases in the mountains. Turkey also wants Iraq to join Washington and Ankara in labeling the PKK a terrorist organization. But if Iraq fails to curb the PKK, then, as President Abdullah Gul told TIME in an interview earlier this year, "Turkey reserves the right to defend itself."

Wednesday's vote comes amid rising nationalist sentiment in Turkey, fueled by the PKK attacks and also by moves in the U.S. Congress to declare the mass killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks starting in 1915 a genocide. The situation is also complicated by the desire of the Turkish military to improve its standing among ordinary Turks after its failed attempt to block the election of the moderate Islamist Abdullah Gul as the country's President earlier this year.

Given the range of political elements in play, some analysts suggest all sides should avoid drawing lines in the sand. "The U.S. should be careful not to overreact if Turkey does send forces into the Kurdish area, " writes Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The U.S., Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government has every reason to protest, but selective anti-PKK operations have a quarter of a century of precedents; the Iraqi Kurds are partially to blame; and it is far from clear just how destabilizing such Turkish action will be."