Turkey's War Drums Grow Louder

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Burak Kara / Getty

A Turkish army convoy heads toward Sirnak on the Turkey-Iraq border on October 22, 2007.

Dozens of Turkish military trucks rumbled towards the Iraqi border as Turks across the country took to the streets to demand retaliation for an attack by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists based in north Iraq that killed 12 Turkish soldiers. It was the third large-scale attack in recent weeks. Eight Turkish soldiers are still missing after the incident. Sunday's attack may well prove the last straw for Turkey's hawkish military — NATO's second largest army after the U.S. — which has been readying to cross the border into north Iraq in pursuit of the PKK for several months. Public outrage over a mounting death toll finally led Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to approve an incursion last week. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi diplomats are trying frantically to come up with a non-military solution.

Following Sunday's attack, the military said it had launched an offensive along the border, where Turkey already has some 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters. On Monday, a convoy of 50 military vehicles, loaded with soldiers and weapons, was seen heading toward the border, according to the Associated Press. In Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the port city of Mersin, thousands of protestors, wearing black ribbons and waving the Turkish flag, denounced the PKK attack. Across the country, public events and celebrations (including a concert by the American pop star Beyonce in Istanbul) were canceled to mourn the army deaths.

Until last year, the PKK seemed to have all but faded as an armed movement. The group spoke of democratic struggle and improved cultural rights. However, since then, observers say, the group's hawkish wing has taken over and now wants to draw Turkey into north Iraq. Any incursion is potentially treacherous and could lead Turkey into a quagmire much like the U.S. is facing in the rest of Iraq. The PKK's Kandil Mountain stronghold is notoriously rugged terrain well suited to guerrilla warfare. Air strikes alone are unlikely to be effective against it. A major land offensive, depending on how deep Turkish troops venture and in what numbers, could lead beyond fighting the PKK, to clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, as well as civilian casualties.

Worse, Turkish public fury has now found a second target in the Kurdish regional government of north Iraq, which popular opinion in Turkey has accused of harboring the PKK. Opposition politicians have called on the military to declare the Iraqi Kurdish administration an "enemy" and target them in any operation. Turkey is already deeply suspicious of Iraq's Kurds and their progress over the past four years toward creating an independent Kurdish state, which could in turn foment unrest among its own Kurdish population. "From this point on, our barrels are pointed at [Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud] Barzani," wrote Ertugrul Ozkok, chief editor of the top-selling Hurriyet newspaper. "We must tell Barzani. 'You have two options. Either you can be our neighbor or our enemy.'"

Iraqi Kurds appear to be relying on Washington to intervene, but the U.S. is caught between a rock and a hard place. North Iraq is the only relatively stable region in that country and the Kurds there are its only allies. Washington has repeatedly urged respect for Iraq's sovereignty. At the same time, however, Turkey is one of the biggest U.S. allies — the only mainly Muslim NATO member and a key player in a volatile region that Washington cannot risk alienating. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Ankara Sunday for "a few more days" and was told by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "take speedy steps." But with war drums beating and a public hungry for revenge, it would take a major move, like a U.S. strike on PKK targets, or the capture and handover of several PKK leaders, to stop an imminent incursion. Neither appears likely.