Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Turkey Lawmakers OK Possible Iraq Attack

By Christopher Torchia

Parliament authorized the government Wednesday to carry out a cross-border attack on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, approving an offensive that would put Turkey at odds with the U.S. There was no sign of an imminent invasion.

Washington and Iraq have pressured Ankara to show restraint and Turkish leaders signaled that they would not immediately give the order to send in the 60,000 troops, armor and attack helicopters into a region that has largely escaped the chaos of the Iraq war.

The crisis along the Turkey-Iraq border, where the Turkish forces have massed since summer, has driven up oil prices along with tensions between Ankara and its NATO ally, the United States.

President Bush said the U.S. was making clear to NATO ally Turkey that it should not stage a major army operation in the Iraqi north, much of which has escaped the sustained violence and political discord common in the rest of Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Bush said Turkey has had troops stationed in northern Iraq "for quite a while," a reference to about 1,500 soldiers deployed for years to monitor the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, with the permission of Iraqi Kurd authorities.

"We don't think it's in their interest to send more troops in," he said.

Although the vote lifted the last legal obstacle to an offensive, Turkish leaders apparently hoped that the threat of an incursion would prod Iraq and the U.S. to move against rebel bases.

Turkey, which last carried out a major incursion into Iraq a decade ago with 50,000 soldiers, estimates 3,800 Turkish Kurd guerrillas operate from Iraq and 2,300 are inside Turkey.

An attack would put the United States in a difficult position between key allies: Turkey, a relatively stable Muslim democracy in a strategic region prone to conflict, and the Iraqi central government as well as the Kurdish administration in Iraq's autonomous northern region.

In a 507-19 vote, Turkey's Parliament approved military operations against rebel bases in northern Iraq over the next year, but the government appeared willing to give diplomatic pressure on the U.S.-backed Iraqi administration more time to work.

Turkey also moved to explain its decision to invade Iraq in pursuit of the PKK to its Arab neighbors with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan visiting both Egypt and Lebanon.

Oil prices surged briefly to a new record of $89 a barrel after the vote. Traders worry that any escalation in the conflict will cut oil supplies from northern Iraq.

Hours before the vote, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to say Iraq's government was determined to halt "terrorist activities" of the PKK on Iraqi territory, his office said.

A close aide to al-Maliki said later that the two leaders agreed the Iraqis should deal with PKK fighters based inside Iraq and the Turks would take care of guerrillas operating in Turkish territory.

But Erdogan warned that Iraq must rein in the guerrillas, the aide added. "If you don't solve the problem now, we will have no choice but to pursue the PKK inside Iraq," he quoted the Turkish leader as saying.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the confidential conversation, added that there would be no joint operations involving Iraqi and Turkish troops. He said Iraq would not agree to more Turkish soldiers entering its territory.

Erdogan had suggested that Turkey, Iraq and the U.S. conduct a joint campaign against the PKK. But U.S. and Iraqi troops are hard pressed elsewhere, and Iraqi Kurds are reluctant to fight their ethnic brethren from Turkey.

A Kurdish lawmaker in Iraq warned an incursion would threaten the relative stability of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and called on the Turkish government to deal with the issue "in a peaceful way."

"Any Turkish incursion into Iraqi territories will be considered a violation of international rules and will affect negatively on the security and stability of the Kurdistan region, which is part of Iraq," said Adnan al-Mufti, the speaker of the regional parliament.

Al-Mufti also said he believed the Turks had ulterior motives aimed at upsetting the success of the autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq as it fears separatist sentiment within its own borders.

PKK fighters have bases in the mountains of northern Iraq and periodically cross the rugged border to stage attacks as part of their war to win autonomy for Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. More than 30,000 people have died from fighting that began in 1984.

The authorization for an offensive inside Iraq had the backing of all of Turkey's parliamentary parties except a small Kurdish party. A single lawmaker from the opposition Republican People's Party voted against it.

"I am concerned that Turkey could be dragged into an Iraqi quagmire," said the lawmaker, Esref Erdem.

Turkish leaders have said publicly that they would prefer a solution to the guerrilla problem that avoids a cross-border offensive — past operations have failed to produce a victory over the rebels — but Erdogan has warned that Turkey will take whatever steps it must to defeat the PKK.

"What's important is the parliament's decision, not what people say," Erdogan said.

Public anger is high in Turkey over a recent spate of guerrilla attacks in the southeast as well as a perception that the United States has failed to back Turkey in its fight with the PKK, even though Washington lists the movement as a terrorist group.

At a White House news conference, Bush noted Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is in Turkey to assure Turkish leaders that Iraq shares their concerns about terrorist activities, but to also argue that there's a better way to deal with the problem than sending more troops into Iraq.

"What I'm telling you is that there's a lot of dialogue going on and that's positive," Bush said.

But while Bush praised al-Hashemi, officials close to Iraq's prime minister criticized the vice president Wednesday for going to Turkey without first consulting with the al-Maliki government. They said discussions on such a serious national security matter should go through official channels.

Bush urged the Democratic-controlled Congress not to worsen tensions by approving a resolution labeling as genocide the World War I-era killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Turks during the final years of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Noting the number of domestic bills pending before Congress, he said, "One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire."

Turkey, which argues the deaths came during civil unrest and not from a planned campaign to eradicate Armenians, is furious over the measure and has threatened repercussions if it is adopted. Turkey is a key route for moving supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House vote to label the bloodshed nearly a century ago as genocide was in jeopardy after several Democrats withdrew their support and sounded alarms it could cripple U.S.-Turkish relations.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said failure of the measure might convince Turkey's leaders to forgo military action in northern Iraq as a conciliatory gesture to Washington.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell indicated U.S. military leaders felt Turkey is not committed to invading Iraq.

"The Turks are clearly frustrated, they're clearly angry, but I also do not think there is a great deal of appetite to take this next step," Morrell said. "It would be an enormous step. It would have enormous implications, not just for us but for the Turks, and I don't think there is any rush to war on the part of the Turks."

But Cagaptay said another serious PKK attack on Turkish civilians would probably trump diplomatic gestures.

"If there's another massive PKK attack, killing a dozen civilians, you can expect they will go in within the next 24 hours," he said.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.