BAGHDAD — Turkish combat planes and ground troops crossed into northern Iraq Wednesday to hunt down Kurdish guerrillas who had killed 29 members of Turkey's security forces and five civilians in a series of raids over the last two days.
The incursion, which Turkish news accounts said killed 21 members of the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, underscored the fragile state of Iraq's security 11 weeks before all U.S. troops are to be withdrawn from the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, no doubt embarrassed by the latest operation by a guerrilla group that operates in a part of Iraq where the Iraqi army does not, made no comment on the Turkish move.
Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to condemn the killing of 24 Turkish troops by PKK guerrillas Wednesday as a "criminal act" that was "first and foremost against the interests of the people of Kurdistan."
Turkey's military operation came just hours after the Wednesday attacks, which PKK guerrillas launched on seven security posts in the southeastern province of Hakkari. In addition to the 24 soldiers killed, the attacks wounded 18 others. One day earlier, PKK guerrillas killed five police officers and four civilians in southeastern Bitlis province.
The two days of attacks brought to at least 50 the number of Turks — including 17 civilians — killed since July by the Kurdish militants.
Turkish news reports said fighter jets bombed at least four suspected PKK training camps as troops moved several miles inside Iraq and helicopters dropped Turkish commando units. It was unclear how long Turkish troops intended to remain inside Iraq.
Erdogan canceled a planned trip to Kazakhstan to announce "wide-reaching operations, including hot pursuit operations" against PKK targets. As Turks staged protest marches in several cities, President Abdullah Gul warned that Turkey's "revenge" for the attacks "will be tenfold."
President Barack Obama threw his support behind Erdogan, promising "strong cooperation" with "one of our closest and strongest allies" as it "works to defeat the terrorist threat from the PKK."
The PKK assaults in Turkey were an ominous warning of the security and political challenges that are likely to confront Iraq's fragile central government in the absence of an American military presence.
Earlier this week, thousands of Kurds in Khanaqin, a town in Diyala province, staged a march to demand the right to fly the Kurdish flag over public buildings instead of the Iraqi national flag. One Kurdish protester set himself on fire and remains in critical condition in a hospital.
The United States enjoys extremely cordial ties with Iraqi Kurds, who thrived for a dozen years largely outside Saddam Hussein's control after the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone over the region at the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003, U.S military officials have taken an active role in managing conflicts between the Kurds and Iraq's other ethnic groups.
But the U.S. has been unable to persuade local Kurdish authorities to clamp down on the PKK, which operates in areas that are largely inaccessible to the Iraq army and are only lightly patrolled by the Iraqi Kurds peshmerga militia.
That last time Turkey invaded northern Iraq was in 2008, following an upsurge in PKK cross-border violence.
The PKK, which the United States and many of its European allies have designated as a terrorist organization, says it is seeking greater autonomy for Kurds, who dominate Turkey's southeast. Tens of thousands of people have died in a quarter-century of conflict.
While Barzani condemned the PKK's latest operations and Maliki remained silent, some prominent Kurdish politicians in Baghdad took a more ambiguous stance.
Mahmoud Othman, an Iraqi Kurd who serves in the Iraqi parliament, said Turkey should negotiate with its Kurdish population to end the conflict.
"It has been using force — and what has force gained them? Nothing. This is not an issue that can be resolved by force. It is a political issue that can only be resolved by political means and talks," he said. Othman denied, however, that the PKK's attacks had been launched from Iraqi soil.
Iraqi leaders say they've been actively trying to curb PKK activities. Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, informed Turkey that Iraq is determined to remove the PKK from Iraqi territory. He said Iraq would not allow the PKK to poison its relations with Turkey, which is one of Iraq's biggest foreign investors.
"The prevention of terrorist activities is the responsibility of the Iraqi government," he said.
Significantly, perhaps, the attacks occurred on the same day that Turkey began discussions on a new constitution. Erdogan warned that a precondition for taking part in the drafting of the constitution was condemning the PKK. "Those who condemn terrorist attacks but cannot declare PKK as a terrorist organization cannot make a positive contribution to the process," he said.
(Gutman reported from Baghdad. Yezdani, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Istanbul. Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed from Baghdad).
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