/ 27 February 2008

Turk envoy tells Iraq no timetable for pull-out

Turkey declined on Wednesday to give Baghdad a timetable for the withdrawal of troops fighting Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, resisting pressure from the United States and other allies to end the offensive quickly.

“Our objective is clear, our mission is clear and there is no timetable until … those terrorist bases are eliminated,” Turkish envoy Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference after talks in Baghdad with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

Thousands of Turkish troops crossed the border on Thursday to root out Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters. The PKK has used remote mountainous northern Iraq as a base for its fight since the 1990s for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish south-east of Turkey.

Acting Iraqi prime minister Barham Saleh said a prolonged Turkish operation would lead to “dire” consequences for the region and repeated Baghdad’s demand that the incursion end.

“This would be highly destabilising; it’s dangerous to the stability of Iraq and the region as a whole,” Saleh, a Kurd, said on the sidelines of an economic conference. “This is a very dangerous, precarious situation.”

Turkey’s military said another 77 PKK rebels had been killed in heavy fighting since Tuesday night, taking the death toll among the rebels to 230 since Turkey’s offensive began.

The US and the European Union have expressed concern over the incursion. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who is due to meet Turkish officials in Ankara on Thursday, said Turkey must limit its operations to days rather than months.

“It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave, and to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty,” Gates told reporters in New Delhi before leaving for a previously scheduled trip to Ankara. “I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that. Not months.”

Weather improving

The Turkish General Staff said in a statement that five more Turkish soldiers had been killed since late Tuesday, taking their losses to 24. PKK claims that more than 100 Turkish troops have been killed could not be verified.

The Turkish statement said its forces had hit 475 new targets, including shelters, anti-aircraft facilities, training bases and command centres. It also said the weather was improving after advances were slowed by heavy snow in the remote, mountainous region of Iraq’s Kurdistan.

On Tuesday, Iraq condemned the incursion as a violation of its sovereignty and, in its strongest comments so far, called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops.

Ankara says it is engaged in a legitimate fight against what it and Washington describe as a terrorist organisation.

Gates’s visit to Turkey was planned before the offensive began. US defence officials considered cancelling the trip, but decided it was better to bring the Pentagon’s message directly to Ankara that Washington wanted the operation to be concluded quickly, one senior US defence official said.

The US is providing significant intelligence to Turkey. If Ankara does not heed Washington’s call to complete the operation quickly, Washington could curtail or cut off that intelligence flow.

Davutoglu said the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq could not be tolerated by Turkey, nor by Iraq. “For us, continuing operations is not a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. It’s just the opposite,” he said. “It’s the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty over those geographic areas [where] terrorists are functioning.”

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40 000 people since it began its armed struggle for self-rule in mainly Kurdish south-east Turkey in 1984.

Turkey says an estimated 3 000 PKK members have used northern Iraq as a base to stage cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians. — Reuters

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Baghdad and Kristin Roberts in New Delhi