The Turkish military said on Friday it had launched a cross-border ground offensive into Iraq to flush out Kurdish PKK rebels based in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraq's central government in Baghdad urged Turkey to respect its sovereignty.
The Turkish General Staff posted a message on its Web site saying its troops had crossed the border at 7pm local time Thursday, after a preparatory artillery bombardment. "The Turkish Armed Forces, which attach great importance to Iraq's territorial integrity and stability, will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved," the message read.
“The message emphasizes that the troops will be withdrawn when the operation is finished, and that the operation is not an attack on Iraqi sovereignty,” said Jasper Mortimer, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Ankara.
Turkish television station NTV reported that 10,000 troops had entered Iraqi territory.
Jasper Mortimer said the timing of the offensive – in February when temperatures are still very low in the border region – suggests that the Turkish military do not intend to leave their troops inside Iraq for long. “There’s still a lot of snow on the mountains."
According to Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Turkish troops destroyed five bridges across a remote mountain river on the Iraqi border during the incursion.
On the Kurdish side, Ahmed Danees, head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location that the rebels clashed with Turkish troops in the Zagros mountains where the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet.
"There are severe clashes. Two Turkish soldiers have been killed and eight wounded. There are no PKK casualties," the PKK spokesperson said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a telephone call Thursday night that the Iraqi government considers the PKK a common threat but urged Turkey to respect Iraq’s territorial integrity.
US: 'not the greatest news'
A senior U.S. official on Friday said Turkey’s large-scale incursion was "not the greatest news.” The USA is a major Turkish ally.
Speaking in Brussels, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told reporters: "A land operation is a whole new level.” He said Washington had been providing intelligence to Turkey on PKK positions in northern Iraq since November to enable the Turkish air force to make pinpointed attacks minimising civilian casualties.
“What’s critical in the region is to have approval from the Americans," said Jean-Bernard Cadier, FRANCE 24's international affairs editor. "It’s not clear in this case if the Turkish army had the green light from the US. The Americans seem embarrassed. They say they were notified about the operation, but that doesn’t mean they gave a go-ahead. The Americans have two allies in the region: the Kurds in northern Iraq, and Turkey. The Turkish operation puts them in a very awkward position.”
11th incursion in recent months
The operation is the 11th incursion by Turkish troops into northern Iraq since the end of November, Mortimer said. “It will damage relations between Turkey and Iraq. For months now Turkey has been calling on Baghdad to take measures against the PKK rebels. Baghdad has said ‘They’re not under our control, we can’t control them.’”
The PKK rebels are based in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is controlled by the regional Iraqi Kurdish government. Turkey says it has the right under international law to attack the rebels, who have mounted attacks inside Turkey that have killed scores of troops in recent months.
Previous Turkish incursions have lasted a few hours and involved relatively small numbers of troops. “Back in December there was a lot of noise about an incursion that involved just 300 troops,” notes Robert Parsons, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor. “This time it’s much bigger.”