Bush calls for quick end to Turkish Iraq operation

United States President George Bush urged Nato ally Turkey on Thursday to end its offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq quickly, but Washington said it would not threaten to withdraw intelligence help.

The United States fears prolonging the Turkish operation, which began on February 21, will undermine stability in the region, particularly Iraq, though it backs Ankara’s mission to crush the PKK and late last year began providing significant intelligence.

”The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out,” Bush told a White House news conference.

His comments came shortly after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up a brief visit to Ankara where he failed to pin down a possible timetable for a Turkish withdrawal.

Before arriving in Ankara he had made clear that he wanted the mission to be short — days or a week or two, not months.

Turkey’s military General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit was quoted by Turkish television as saying: ”A short time is a relative concept, it could be one day or one year.”

But Gates, who held talks with Buyukanit, Turkey’s President and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, played down any differences, saying the United States and Turkey had shared interests.

”I think that those interests are probably not advanced by making threats, by threatening to cut off intelligence.”

”The key is for us to make clear what our interests are, our concerns about the situation in Iraq,” he said.

The Bush administration has been sharing intelligence with its chief military ally in the region, mainly to help its aerial bombing campaign to destroy PKK havens. If Ankara does not heed Washington’s call to complete the operation quickly, Washington could curtail or cut off that intelligence flow.

Turkey’s defence minister said troops, battling icy winter conditions, would stay in Iraq as long as necessary to accomplish their goal of ending the PKK threat from Iraq.

Thousands of Turkish troops, backed by warplanes and attack helicopters, crossed the border on February 21 to root out Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters and destroy their numerous bases.

”It should be clear that military action alone will not end this terrorist threat,” Gates added, saying Ankara must also take political and economic steps to isolate the PKK guerrillas and help support Turkey’s large ethnic Kurdish minority.

Iraqi Kurds, long suspicious of neighbour Turkey, fear Ankara is seeking to undermine the autonomy of oil-rich Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Ankara says it only wants to end terrorism.

It is Turkey’s first major ground offensive into northern Iraq in a decade.

The outlawed PKK has been gradually squeezed out of Turkey and instead has been using remote mountainous northern Iraq as their main base in the decades-long armed campaign for ethnic rights and self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

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

Turkish leaders have come under renewed domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3 000 PKK members, including its leadership, who use northern Iraq as a base to stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.

More troops

Senior military sources in south-east Turkey told Reuters several hundred Turkish soldiers were ferried across the border by helicopter into northern Iraq on Wednesday evening.

Units of several hundred special forces, backed by soldiers, were leading the charge against rebel camps across an isolated part of northern Iraq, which is not under the control of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.

A senior Turkish military source said about 10 000 troops were involved in the northern Iraqi operation, much centred around the Zap valley, a PKK stronghold.

Turkish NTV television said army helicopters dropped leaflets urging PKK rebels to surrender in Iraq.

Turkey’s military has put the death toll among the PKK rebels at 230 since the campaign began. Twenty four soldiers have been killed so far.

The PKK says that more than 100 Turkish troops had been killed. It has not given a figure for rebel casualties.

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

Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said on Wednesday a prolonged Turkish operation would lead to dire consequences for the region and repeated Baghdad’s demand that the incursion end.

The prime minister of largely autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq suspected Turkey’s incursion was meant to target the Kurdish region and not just PKK bases.

”The actions of the Turkish military in attacking bridges in the border areas, which are important to people there, makes us anxious,” Nechirvan Barzani told Reuters in Arbil. – Reuters

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