WASHINGTON — As the Iraqi government watched in anguish Monday, Turkey's ambassador to the United States set an ambitious goal for his country's incursion into the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq: "to eliminate" a Kurdish rebel force of at least 4,000 fighters.
In Washington, the Bush administration left no doubt of its overall support for the Turkish operation to deal with the Kurdistan Worker's Party, commonly known as the PKK, which both the Bush administration and Europe consider to be a terrorist organization.
The Turkish incursion, which began last Thursday, involves a U.S.-equipped army invading a U.S. ally in the most stable and most pro-American region in Iraq.
"It's obviously not an ideal situation," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We hope that this is a short-term incursion so that they (Turkey) can help deal with the threat."
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Turkish operation will be "limited in depth and in duration," and that so far, Turkey hasn't deviated from the mission it laid out to the U.S.
Nabi Sensoy, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, told McClatchy that the offensive would be "swift," but he wouldn't offer an estimate of how long it would last. The Turkish "military has certain targets," Sensoy said. Its goal is to "eliminate the terrorist organization."
The ambassador called the attack, which entered its fifth day Monday, a "sweep operation" after Turkey conducted recent airstrikes.
The Turks' decision to press on puts the Bush administration between its NATO ally and its steadfast Kurdish allies in Iraq, who are calling for the U.S. to stop an invasion that's damaging their civilian infrastructure. The fighting also threatens to destabilize Iraq's safest region.
Sensoy said that the PKK fighters are amassed along the Turkish border, where they conduct "hit and run operations" into Turkey. Over the past 24 years, Sensoy charged, the PKK has killed 30,000 people.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is scheduled to visit Turkey on Thursday, but there have been some hints at the Pentagon that the trip could be canceled. Sensoy, however, said the visit is still set. In Ankara, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey privately met for 45 minutes with a senior policy adviser to the Turkish prime minister, according to Turkish news agencies.
On Monday, PKK officials said that Turkish forces had withdrawn from some villages, but continued to attack in the northeastern part of Dohuk and northern Irbril provinces.
Turkey claimed that 41 Kurdish rebels were killed Monday, bringing the death toll to 1,531. The PKK claims it has killed 81 Turkish soldiers; the Turkish government says it has lost 17.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government appealed to the United States to try to thwart Turkey.
In a meeting with reporters Monday, Jawad al Bolani, the Iraqi interior minister, promised to defend Iraq, saying: "Anything Turkey does to cause fear among the people of Iraq, we will defend." But he didn't explain how.
Ali Dabbaugh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, called the five-day attack "a violation of Iraqi sovereignty," but he acknowledged that Iraq's military wasn't strong enough to confront Turkish soldiers.
In northern Iraq, PKK spokesman Ahmed Dennis said Turkey's aim was to weaken Kurds in Iraq. But Sensoy, the ambassador, tried to assuage concerns that Turkey was going after other Kurdish groups.
"We have no hidden agenda," he said.
(Lannen reported from Baghdad. Leila Fadel contributed from Baghdad, and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Yaseen Taha contributed from Sulaimaniyah, Iraq. Youssef reported from Washington.)