Monday, February 25, 2008

Iraq Fears Clash Between Turkish Troops and Iraqi Kurds

Iraq Fears Clash Between Turkish Troops and Iraqi Kurds

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Baghdad - Iraq fears that a prolonged Turkish incursion into northern Iraq could trigger clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga security forces, the country's national security adviser said on Monday.

Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said such fighting could have "very serious consequences" for a part of Iraq that has been relatively stable compared to the rest of the country.

Ankara launched a ground incursion on Thursday in a remote part of Iraq's largely autonomous region of Kurdistan to hunt down Kurdish PKK rebels. It accuses the PKK of using the area as a base to stage deadly attacks inside Turkey.

"The further and longer Turkish soldiers stay inside Iraqi territory, the more likely this is going to happen," Rubaie told reporters in Baghdad when asked if he was concerned about clashes between Turkish and Peshmerga forces breaking out.

"We need to avoid this at any cost. This has very serious consequences even if this happens by accident."

A Kurdish official said Turkish troops and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels clashed during the night in the Amadiya area, about 10 km (6 miles) south of the border, but he added it had been quiet on Monday. He said the Turkish military had also launched several air strikes on PKK targets overnight.

So far the battle-hardened Peshmerga have stayed on the sidelines of the Turkish military operation, which is taking place in a sparsely populated mountainous region. Kurdish officials regard the area as outside their control.

While Iraqi Kurds have little sympathy for the aims of the PKK, there is widespread anger over the incursion.

The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan said on Saturday that any targeting of Kurdish civilians would result in "massive resistance" by its Peshmerga forces, which have been put on a state of alert.

Turkey says it is carrying out a limited operation against the PKK, which it blames for the death of nearly 40,000 people since it began its armed struggle in 1984. The PKK has been battling to create a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey.

Civilians

U.S. officials say Ankara has given assurances it will do all it can to avoid civilian casualties.

There have been no reports of civilian casualties, but residents in villages near the border say they are being targeted in Turkish air strikes and artillery barrages.

In a worrying sign, Turkish ground troops have come face to face with Peshmerga forces twice in recent days.

In one incident, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official said Peshmerga soldiers stopped Turkish tanks from leaving a base just inside northern Iraq. Turkey has kept small contingents of troops in northern Iraq since earlier offensives in the 1990s.

Iraq's government said on Sunday Turkey should withdraw its troops as soon as possible and urged Ankara to sit down with Baghdad for talks to resolve the crisis over the PKK.

It has repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the PKK presence, saying it has taken some measures to deal with the rebels but is more focused on trying to stabilize the rest of the country.

The PKK said it downed a Turkish Cobra attack helicopter in north Iraq on Saturday. Turkey's military said a helicopter had been rendered ineffective but that the cause was unknown.

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