Turkish military chief wants to enter northern Iraq

( Lat ) - The Turkish military's powerful chief declared Thursday that his army should be given the go-ahead for a cross-border offensive into northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish rebels using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.

The United States has strongly warned Turkey against such an incursion, saying it could destabilize the entire region. Any strike across the border could leave the American military in a difficult position if this fellow member of NATO ends up battling Iraqi Kurds, who are key U.S. allies.

But several Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they feared that in this election year, the Turkish government would succumb to popular sentiment and authorize some kind of military push.

In an unusual public assertion, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said Kurdish rebels who take shelter in the autonomous zone controlled by Kurds in northern Iraq posed an unacceptable danger to Turkey and the army should be allowed to go in after them.

``There is a need for a military operation against the terrorist organization ... in the north of Iraq,'' the general told journalists during a televised interview in the capital, Ankara. ``Should it be done militarily? Yes, it should. Would it be useful? Yes, it would.''

By law, the parliament must give its approval to military operations outside Turkish territory. The army chief's call puts heavy pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to seek such authorization from lawmakers.

``A political decision is required for that,'' said Buyukanit, whose military has long been a dominant force in Turkey's political life. ``The Turkish armed forces have the capacity and means -- more than required -- to launch such an operation if legally authorized.''

A full-blown Turkish military operation in northern Iraq is still considered unlikely by most analysts, but Buyukanit's comments were the latest sign that smaller-scale activity against rebel sanctuaries is increasingly likely -- perhaps in the form of airstrikes or commando raids.

Turkey has bitterly and repeatedly complained to the Iraqi government about what it says has been a failure to rein in rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who slip back and forth across the Turkish-Iraqi frontier. The U.S., together with Turkey, considers the group a terrorist organization.

``The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq,'' said Buyukanit. ``It has sunk its roots in Iraq.''

Turkey says nearly 4,000 Kurdish militants are believed to be based in northern Iraq, with about half that number operating mainly inside Turkey.

In recent public comments, Turkish officials have appeared to be building a case for an incursion into northern Iraq, describing potential military strikes as amounting to self-defense under international law.

Tensions between the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurds have been steadily increasing over the future of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurds want it to become part of their region, a move that Turkey fears would provide a source of funding for the Kurdish struggle.

The Iraqi government has agreed to hold a constitutionally mandated referendum on Kirkuk's fate by the year's end, despite fierce objections from other ethnic groups including Turkomen and Arabs.

With springtime weather arriving in the rugged mountains of Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, Turkey has intensified military operations against rebels on its side of the border.

Buyukanit pointed to intelligence reports that he said indicated the guerrillas intended to step up their fight against Turkish troops. He said the Turkish military is engaging in ``large-scale'' offensives against the rebels, but provided no details.

Recent clashes inside Turkey have killed 10 government soldiers and more than two dozen PKK militants, according to Turkish authorities. Turkey has denied shelling PKK positions inside Iraq.

The last major Turkish push into Iraq, involving tens of thousands of troops, was nearly 15 years ago. But it did little to quell the Kurdish rebellion.

Turkey's tactics in the long battle against Kurdish separatists have been a blot on the country's human rights record and an impediment as it seeks membership in the European Union.

More than 37,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in earnest in the mid-1980s.

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