Winter might be Turkey's worst foe in Iraq

ISTANBUL — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to decide whether to send his army south into Iraq in an effort to destroy rebel Kurdish bases there after a meeting Monday in Washington with President Bush.

But military experts say that what takes place at that meeting may not be as important to Erdogan's decision as another factor that neither Turkey nor the United States controls — the weather.

"The winter snows are coming," said Sedat Laciner, director of Turkey's International Strategic Research Organization. "The mountains are not an ideal military staging point in perfect weather. Once the winter arrives, they are impossible."

Turkey has been threatening to send its military into northern Iraq in pursuit of guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, who've killed 30 Turkish soldiers in the past month. Hundreds more soldiers have been killed in the 25 years that the PKK has been fighting to establish an autonomous Kurdish state in southern Turkey.

But the United States, which has long included the PKK on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, is hoping to dissuade Erdogan from launching an attack.

On Sunday, U.S. officials served as the go-between in the return to Turkey of eight Turkish soldiers who'd been captured Oct. 21 by PKK guerrillas.

Whether that will tamp down Turkish anger over PKK activities is unknown. There was no official Turkish reaction to the release, except an acknowledgement that the soldiers were back in Turkey.

In a statement, the PKK said it expected Turkey to launch a military action soon and promised to defend their positions in Iraq's Kandil Mountains with "a ferocity that will teach them a lesson they will never forget."

There will be no compromise, the statement said. "We long for self-determination, and any solution that doesn't accomplish that _to guarantee cultural, social and political rights _will be refused," the statement said, quoting Zardesht Jody, a member of the PKK's leadership committee.

Still, military analysts said Erdogan's decision will be governed not by politics as much as by the difficulty of a winter military campaign.

Turkey has gathered tens of thousands of troops near the Iraqi border, a far larger force than the 3,000 PKK guerrillas Turkey estimates have taken refuge inside Iraq.

But the Kandil Mountains are largely untamed, with few trails and fewer roads cutting through them. Sharply angled, and sparsely vegetated, military experts consider them impassable in the winter, especially for heavy equipment, or mass troop movements.

That could argue for a decision to move quickly, said Robert Ayers, an expert on terrorism at London's prestigious Chatham House research center. Ayers just returned from a visit with Turkish security officials.

"They can't move 30,000 into those mountains, only to have them trapped by the snows, both their escape route and supply routes cut off," Ayers said. "If they're going in this year, and the mood seems to indicate there is the will to, there isn't much time left."

Turkish forces also would face the difficulties of fighting guerrillas who are at home in the mountains.

"They know every cave, every gully in those mountains. We do not," said Meliha Benli Altunisik, chair of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

But public opinion here strongly favors some kind of military action against the PKK.

Many people here talk with pride about the Turkish military, which has an estimated 600,000 members under arms and is a member of NATO. Military leaders continue to have strong voices on many political matters in Turkey.

Cengiz Atalay, 30, of Kars, Turkey, noted that he sold $3,500 worth of Turkish national flags after taking time off his usual hospital job to stand on a street corner in Ankara, which hosted massive pro-war demonstrations last week.

"If we go to war, I will sell many, many more," he said. "We Turks know this is the time to show our pride, to show that we're ready for war."