Iraqi Kurds ready to confront Turkish troops

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2008 

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Iraqi Kurdish officials on Friday ordered 6,000 Kurdish militiamen to take up new positions in Iraq's Dohuk province as hundreds of Turkish troops crossed the border in what Turkey said was an attack on Kurdish rebels who'd sought shelter there.

How many Turkish troops had entered Iraq was uncertain. American military officials in Baghdad estimated the number at 1,000, but Kurdish rebels said the incursion involved 10,000 troops.

Commanders of two Kurdish militia organizations confirmed that they'd been ordered to move north in force and that their men were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, PKC machine guns, which can be used as light anti-aircraft weapons, and assault rifles.

But the militia didn't intervene in fighting between the Turks and rebels from the Kurdistan Worker's Party, commonly known as the PKK.

Still, the makeup of the forces suggested that Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani probably approved the deployment: More than 4,000 of the Kurdish forces belong to the Zeravany, the military wing of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. The remaining 2,000 are members of Iraqi Kurdistan's peshmerga militia, the regional government's armed force.

Barzani has been a frequent critic of the United States and Iraq's central government for their cooperation with Turkey in targeting the PKK, which is widely popular in Iraq's Kurdish region, but which the United States considers a terrorist organization. A confrontation between Turkish forces and the Kurdish militia would be a major escalation in the standoff over PKK attacks in Turkey, which have killed hundreds of Turkish civilians and soldiers in recent years.

On Friday, Barzani rushed to Dohuk province to meet with military and local leaders after the Turkish troops crossed the border.

"What is currently happening is an aggression against the Kurdish people," he told military leaders. "We are not for escalation, but we also don't believe that there is a military solution to this issue."

Friday's incursion came after a Turkish aerial and artillery bombardment on Kurdish targets that destroyed at least five bridges and one day after peshmerga forces confronted Turkish troops who'd moved to seize two highways in Dohuk in tanks and armed personnel carriers. The peshmerga forced the Turks to return to one of the five bases that Turkey has maintained in Iraq since 1997 and then surrounded the base. Peshmerga commanders told the Turks that they would open fire if the Turks attempted to move off the base.

On Friday, 4,000 people demonstrated in front of the base, demanding that about 1,000 Turkish soldiers stationed in Iraq leave, according to a statement from the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Details of Friday's fighting were sketchy. Peshmerga officials said the Turkish troops crossed into the village of Shransh, 12 miles northeast of Zakho city in the Amadiyah district, where they began battling with PKK guerrillas. Turkish aircraft buzzed overhead and

Turkish shelling continued northeast of Dohuk in Nairaq, Rikan and Gani Masi villages.

Reports said that two Turkish soldiers had been killed. The PKK said its forces suffered no casualties.

How long Turkey might keep its forces in Iraq was unclear. In Washington, U.S. officials warned Turkey to confine its assault to PKK positions and to limit damage to other parts of northern Iraq. But the United States didn't ask the Turks to withdraw and said that Turkey had told the U.S. in advance that it intended to send forces into Iraq.

"We were notified and we urged the Turkish government to limit their operations to precise targeting of the PKK — to limit the scope and duration of their operations — and we urged them to work directly with Iraqis, including Kurdish government officials, on how best to address the threat," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

Iraqi officials in Baghdad said they'd been given no advance word of the attack and said Turkey already had damaged roads and bridges that were outside PKK positions.

"We do understand that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but we have asked that they respect the sovereignty of the country and the integrity of Iraq," said Ali al Dabbagh, the Iraqi government's spokesman. "There was no notification of the operation and we are against it."

(McClatchy special correspondent Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah, Fadel from Baghdad. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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