Turkey tried Thursday to allay fears about its plans for a possible cross-border assault on Kurdish rebels in Iraq, saying such an attack would target guerrilla bases and not amount to an "invasion."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to arrive in Ankara, the capital, Friday as part of an intense campaign to prevent Turkey from sending troops into northern Iraq. The U.S. believes that such an operation could trigger a wider conflict with another U.S. ally, the Iraqi Kurds.
Many Turks are furious with the United States for its perceived failure to pressure Iraq into cracking down on the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Street protesters have urged the government to send forces across the border even if it means a deepening of the rift with the U.S., their Cold War-era ally.
On Wednesday, about 100 people gathered at a park in Ankara to protest Rice's visit. Some threw darts at a photograph of her. They held English-language placards that read: "Terrorist Rice, take your bloody hands from Turkey" and "Go home Rice."
Turkey's foreign minister, Ali Babacan, said the military, if it crosses the border, would try to avoid confronting the self-governing Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq. Turkish leaders suspect, however, that the administration there is assisting the PKK, or at the very least tolerating its presence at a network of mountain camps.
"Any cross-border attack would be aimed at hitting terrorist bases, and would not be an invasion," said Babacan, who has toured the Middle East to seek support from Arab leaders for Turkey's stance.
"We have doubts about the sincerity of the administration in northern Iraq in the struggle against the terrorist organization," he said. "We want to see solid steps."
The "invasion" reference recalled the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a source of tension between Washington and Ankara because Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to use its territory as a platform for attacking Saddam Hussein. Turkey has also been troubled by the increasingly emboldened Iraqi Kurds following Saddam's ouster, fearing their success will incite separatism among its minority Kurd population.
The Iraqi Kurds have warned Turkey against staging a cross-border offensive, saying they will defend their territory against any incursion and suggesting that Turkey's ulterior goal is to disrupt their virtual mini-state. Turkey is wary of getting bogged down in a conflict that could be militarily inconclusive and politically damaging for a country seeking to burnish its international image by joining the European Union.
Washington has pressed Turkey for restraint while urging Iraqi Kurds to crack down on the PKK bases in Iraq, where guerrillas rest, train and resupply before infiltrating Turkey again to conduct attacks. The United States says it is now sharing intelligence with Turkey to thwart the PKK threat.
"We, of course, would not want Turkey to launch its own military operations across the border because obviously there are troubles enough in Iraq," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Thursday in Vienna, Austria. "But it is absolutely imperative that steps be taken to prevent such PKK attacks in the future."
After meetings in Ankara, Rice will travel to Istanbul for a conference on Iraq that is likely to be dominated by talk about the crisis on the Iraqi-Turkish border. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to attend. Another delegate, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, arrived Thursday night in Ankara.
On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington. The Turkish military has indicated that it will wait for Erdogan's return before launching any operation in Iraq.
Turkey already has taken some economic measures against the PKK and those who support it, Babacan said without elaborating. He said Turkey was also considering the suspension of flights to northern Iraq, a move likely designed to press the Iraqi Kurd government to move against the PKK.
Erdogan, however, said no sanctions were in place and that there would be an announcement if they were implemented. The government did not explain the conflicting statements.
Iraq's Kurdish region relies heavily on Turkish food imports, construction works and electricity, and Turkish sanctions carry the threat of antagonizing the regional government there rather than making it compliant. Turkey has said it wants to make sure that any economic measures do not inflict suffering on the innocent on both sides of the border.
The PKK, which seeks more rights and autonomy for Turkish Kurds, is labeled a terrorist group by Europe and the United States. ( Fox )