/ 29 February 2008

Turkey pulls troops out of northern Iraq

All Turkish troops involved in a major ground offensive against Kurdish rebels inside northern Iraq have withdrawn to Turkey, Iraq’s foreign minister said on Friday.

Turkey sent thousands of troops into remote, mountainous northern Iraq on February 21 to crush rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who use the region as a base for attacks on Turkish territory. Washington feared the incursion could destabilise an area of relative stability in Iraq.

”All the Turkish troops have withdrawn and gone back to the Turkish side of the international border. We welcome this, we think this is the right thing for Turkey to do,” Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zabari said.

Earlier a senior Turkish military source said some troops had returned to bases in Turkey after completing their mission, but that no full withdrawal had begun.

A United States official in Baghdad said: ”We are seeing a limited portion of the troops that had entered Iraq moving back toward Turkey. [It’s] too early to call this a withdrawal.”

Turkey’s political and military leaders have said the operation will continue for as long as necessary but have come under pressure from the US, their Nato ally, to keep the campaign as short and carefully targeted as possible.

On Thursday, US President George Bush urged Turkey to end the land offensive swiftly.

Washington, like Ankara and the European Union, brands the PKK a terrorist organisation, and has been supplying intelligence to the Turkish military on the PKK in Iraq. But it fears that a prolonged campaign could stoke regional instability.

Turkey’s military says it has killed 237 rebels in the eight-day ground offensive and suffered the loss of 24 soldiers. The PKK says it has killed more than 100 Turkish troops but has not given a figure for its own casualties.

Pressure mounting

During a brief visit to Ankara on Thursday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he had failed to obtain a timetable for a Turkish withdrawal.

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

Turkey’s government had insisted the ground operation, backed by war planes, tanks, long-range artillery and attack helicopters, would continue until PKK bases were erased and the rebels no longer posed a threat to Turkey.

The General Staff said it would make a statement on Friday regarding the reports of a withdrawal.

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

The PKK has been fighting for decades for ethnic rights and self-rule in the mainly Kurdish south-east of Turkey.

But Turkish pressure has gradually squeezed it out of the country, forcing it base itself in a remote, mountainous part of northern Iraq that is outside the control of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish administration.

Turkish leaders have come under domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3 000 PKK members who stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish military and civilians.

Ankara blames the separatist movement for the deaths of nearly 40 000 people since 1984.

A senior Turkish military source said earlier this week that about 10 000 troops were involved in the operation in Iraq, mainly centred around the Zap valley, a PKK stronghold. Some Turkish media reported that Zap had fallen. — Reuters