Will U.S. join assault on rebels or let Turkey go it alone?

The rocky mountains of northern Iraq
The rocky mountains of northern Iraq Tom Pennington / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

ANKARA, Turkey — With public pressure building for a military intervention against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, the United States and Turkey are to begin four days of crisis talks Friday that will help to define America's relationship with Turkey and possibly the future of Iraq as well.

The process opens when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls on Turkish officials here Friday and ends Monday when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls on President Bush. The meeting Monday will "determine the steps Turkey will take," Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Thursday. He said that if Turkish troops crossed the border, it "would be aimed at hitting terrorist bases and would not be an invasion."

Bush's former envoy on the issue told McClatchy Newspapers to put the blame on the administration. He said its failure to keep its promises to Turkey was forcing that country to intervene in Iraq to subdue the Kurdistan Workers Party — the PKK in its Kurdish initials — which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

"They're going to have to (intervene), in the absence of the U.S. doing anything," retired Gen. Joseph Ralston said in a brief telephone interview. He stepped down recently as the State Department's special envoy on the issue.

"The U.S. government should made good on the commitments they have made to the Turks," the former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The PKK, based in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, had run a separatist insurgency against Turkey for 20 years at a cost of an estimated 35,000 lives, but it began a cease-fire in 1999. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Kurdish leaders took political control of their region, PKK fighters began operations against soldiers and civilians in Turkey, launched from an effective sanctuary in what's now called Kurdistan.

The guerrillas are blamed for killing more than 155 Turkish soldiers since 2003, including 110 this year and more than 30 in the past month, according to news accounts. Iraq's central government has condemned the PKK as "terrorists," but the Kurdish regional government has said it has no plans to act against the group.

With 100,000 Turkish troops now said to be massed on the border with Iraq, Turkish officials and experts anticipate an operation against Kurds hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq in as little as a week.

A former Turkish ambassador in Washington warned that a Turkish intervention could have a long-term impact on Iraq.

"Some see this as a choice between keeping Turkey as an ally and appeasing northern Iraq," said Faruk Logoglu, a longtime foreign policy adviser and currently the president of the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, a foreign-policy research institute in Ankara, Turkey's capital. "It's more than that. The U.S. is now choosing between a united and divided Iraq."

Across Turkey, politicians, columnists and the man in the street are calling for the Turkish military to make a swift and decisive move. There have been mass demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul, and even in cities in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.

A recent German Marshall Fund poll found that only 7 percent of Turks now think that the U.S. should play a strong role in international affairs and only 2 percent approve of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. used to be very popular in Turkey, experts agree.

Standing in a street plastered with Turkish flags, Cengiz Atalay, 30, of Ankara said: "We are ready for war."

Across town, student Samet Meydan, 21, noted, "What's now clear is that the United States is no longer a friend to Turkey."

Erdogan said this week, "Americans should be with us."

Meliha Benli Altunisik is one of Turkey's most sought-after commentators on international affairs as the chair of international relations at the Middle East Technical University. She said Turkey needed the U.S. and wanted U.S. approval, to the extent that any small but concrete gesture would be enough to overcome the diplomatic crisis. She suggested turning over a handful of PKK leaders or a few U.S. bombing runs targeting PKK camps.

"This is a terrorist organization camped out in treacherous mountains. We know it is impossible to eliminate them," she said. "But to watch as a supposed ally stands by — with the ability to make the situation better — and does nothing is too much."

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