By an overwhelming margin, Turkey’s parliament on Wednesday authorized military raids into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels who have attacked Turkish targets.
The vote added to rising tensions in the region, with Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, going on high alert, although senior Turkish officials indicated that no invasion was imminent.
Ignoring pleas for restraint from Washington, Baghdad and other capitals, Turkish lawmakers approved the request from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the authority to send counter-terrorism troops into Iraq at any time during the next year.
The measure passed 507 to 19, with most of the opposing votes coming from Kurdish members of the parliament. Lawmakers broke into applause when the results were announced.
“We Are Going Into Iraq!” was the banner headline of the ATV television station.
“We are at the point where our patience has run out,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said in the parliament.
Erdogan and other senior officials indicated, however, that the vote did not mean a swift invasion.
The government is hoping the threat will pressure Iraqi and U.S. forces to act against guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who have been attacking Turkish targets from bases in northern Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.
On Oct. 7, Kurdish rebels killed 13 Turkish soldiers in southeast Turkey, one of their deadliest attacks.
Turkey has been staging airstrikes and limited operations against rebel positions in northern Iraq and many believe it can continue to do so unfettered by international interference, at least until winter weather makes the mountainous region especially treacherous.
At a news conference, President Bush for the first time publicly acknowledged that Turkish troops already are in northern Iraq to monitor PKK activities. Although their presence has been widely known, senior U.S. officials have been reluctant to acknowledge that they are based on the Iraqi side of the border.
A senior military official in Baghdad said there are 1,500 to 1,700 Turkish troops in Iraq, divided into three battalions.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Turkish mission is limited to monitoring PKK activities and the troops are not normally involved in offensive military operations.
The United States has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization but, with its military already overextended elsewhere in Iraq, it has been unwilling to take on the Kurdish rebels. At the same time, officials in Washington fear that a major military offensive would roil the only relatively peaceful region of Iraq.
In Washington, Bush urged Turkey to exercise restraint, saying that the Iraqi government was aware of Turkish anger over cross-border attacks by the PKK and had sent envoys to Ankara to assure the Turkish government that it shared its concerns.
“We are making it very clear to Turkey that we don’t think it is in their interests to send troops into Iraq,” Bush said at a news conference.
He said Washington was playing a direct role in talks between Baghdad and Ankara, although State Department officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had not contacted Turkish officials on the issue.
“Surely the best way to handle this situation is diplomatically,” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said on CNN.
Washington’s power of persuasion in Turkey has eroded considerably because of a congressional committee vote to officially recognize as genocide the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1918. The resolution infuriated Turks and stirred deep anti-U.S. sentiment here, with Ankara recalling its ambassador to Washington.
The Bush administration is keen to repair the damage because it can’t afford to lose Turkey’s cooperation with its military effort in Iraq. According to the Pentagon, 70% of supplies for U.S. troops in Iraq are transported through Turkey, and Turkish threats to cut off access to its airspace or its Incirlik air base would leave the U.S. scrambling for alternatives.
A Pentagon official said military leaders face a situation in which their obligations to Turkey, a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization partner, conflict with their obligations to Kurdish allies in Iraq. Experts also have pointed to this dilemma.
“We are caught by political constraints,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Whatever we do to satisfy one damages the other. We are really caught.”
Iraq, intent on averting a Turkish incursion and its potentially destabilizing repercussions, pledged Wednesday to work on halting PKK attacks.
“We consider PKK activities against the interests of the Kurdish people first, and then against the interests of Turkey,” Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, told reporters in Paris.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki telephoned Erdogan to ask for more time to crack down on the PKK, according to Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia news agency. Maliki’s office in Baghdad confirmed the call, but not the details.
On the eve of Wednesday’s vote in Ankara, Maliki sent Vice President Tariq Hashimi on an emergency mission to Turkey to plead Baghdad’s case. But Iraqi promises ring hollow for many Turks.
Regional officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, over whom Baghdad exercises virtually no control, said they would not get involved in fighting the PKK. Moreover, they vowed to repel Turkish forces if they posed any danger to Iraqi Kurds.
“If the clashes between Turkey and the PKK begin to harm the people of Kurdistan, and they cross deep into Kurdish territory, we will resort to all means to repel the Turkish threat,” regional Kurdish government spokesman Jamal Abdullah said.
Turkish leader Erdogan has come under enormous domestic pressure to crack down on PKK rebels who have launched several deadly attacks such as that of Oct. 7 against Turkish soldiers and police.
“The government knows [going into Iraq] is risky and that they won’t achieve much, maybe kill a few terrorists, but they won’t be able to get rid of the PKK,” said political analyst Mustafa Akyol. “But the public pressure is so strong, so intense, they had to do something.”
That public sentiment was on view Wednesday night in Istanbul, when the Turkish national soccer team played Greece in a qualifying match for the 2008 European Championship. Thousands of Turkish fans called out the names of soldiers killed in PKK ambushes, then chanted: “Martyrs don’t die!”
Anger also spilled over in the parliament before the vote, coupled with resentment over what many Turks see as international inaction on PKK attacks.
“The U.S. has to make a choice between supporting the policies of northern Iraq and an Iraq that backs up the PKK, or supporting Turkey,” said lawmaker Sukru Elekdag of the main opposition party. “Washington has to make this choice.”
Pentagon officials said the U.S. military had been unable to use its own forces to go after PKK strongholds in northern Iraq because the troops were more urgently needed elsewhere. A senior military official in Baghdad said there were no U.S. combat troops in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I think we’d like to end all threats to everyone in Iraq, but there’s only so much that you can do at one time,” Morrell said.
Many Turks are convinced that Washington has refused to go after the PKK as a way to punish Ankara for its refusal to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish soil for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
PKK rebels have been fighting since 1984 for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, a conflict that has claimed about 30,000 lives.
The Turkish parliament twice has approved major operations similar to those endorsed by Wednesday’s vote, but neither was acted on.
Selahattin Demirtas, deputy chairman of a Turkish Kurdish political party, said he feared a wider military response to the PKK would escalate violence.
“The civilians [in southeast Turkey] are very worried, and they want the clashes to come to an end, but they don’t believe a bigger military operation would be able to do this,” Demirtas said. “This could lead to years of regional war in the Middle East. Turkey could be dragged into a big mud pit.”
Special correspondent Borg reported from Ankara, and Times staff writers Wilkinson from Rome and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writers Ned Parker in Baghdad and Paul Richter in Washington and a special correspondent in northern Iraq contributed to this report.