Artillery and gunfire echoed through the mountains of northern Iraq on Monday during continued clashes between invading Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels, with Turkey saying that 153 guerrillas had been killed in four days.
Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Bolani suggested that the United States should do more to stop the fighting, which has left villagers stranded by bombed-out bridges.
“They are the greatest force on the ground. They have certain obligations,” Bolani said Monday of the U.S. military, which has neither intervened in nor commented on the Turkish incursion. “They could do more.”
The conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has put American officials in an uncomfortable position. Turkey is a NATO ally, and the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization. The rebels are seeking a separate Kurdish state.
The White House has confirmed that it knew in advance of Turkey’s latest military operation, which began Thursday night. American officials have said Turkey has the right to defend itself against the PKK, which has bases in northern Iraq.
But the U.S. also has an allegiance to Iraq’s government, which has protested the Turkish incursion.
“Iraq has requested that the Turkish troops go back to Turkey and respect Iraq’s sovereignty,” Bolani said at a meeting with foreign journalists.
In Washington, Nabi Sensoy, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview that he could not say how long the military operation would last but promised it would be “limited in size, scope and duration.”
“This is only targeted at the PKK,” he said. “We have no other agenda.”
Sensoy said that Turkish media reports that 10,000 troops were involved in the operation were “greatly exaggerated,” but he would not say how large a force was taking part.
Turkey said 15 of its soldiers had been killed so far. However, PKK spokesman Ahmed Denis said the Turkish death toll was far higher.
There was no way to independently confirm the number of casualties on either side, but the frustration and anger of locals in the rugged region was clear.
“Why are the Turks doing this, in our land, our country?” said Aska Shazeen, who said she was unable to reach her home in the village of Rashya because the bridge she had to cross was destroyed. “Who is responsible?” she cried.
At a cafe in Shiladezah, about 20 miles south of the Turkish border in Iraq’s Dahuk province, Nijrvan Khalil expressed the sentiments of many locals as he vowed to fight the Turks if the clashes caused any civilian casualties or targeted regions outside of PKK areas of operation.
“I’ll be the first to take up arms against them,” he said of the Turks.
Most Iraqi Kurds sympathize with the demands of Turkey’s minority Kurds for their own homeland.
“They are Kurds like us,” said Khalifa Qadir, another customer in the cafe, where a TV was showing news coverage of some Kurds in Turkey demonstrating for independence.
“This is a nation that won’t vanish easily,” said Qadir. “Their demands should be answered.”
The latest fighting has raised concerns that the peshmerga, the fighting forces of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan regional government, could become entangled in the clashes if the Turks are seen as violating their vow to hit only the PKK.
An official with the Kurdistan regional government, Mohammed Muhsin, said the local administration did not want to become part of the conflict but that there was a line over which Turkey must not cross.
“From our side, we have a red line: when our safe villages and the citizens are being attacked by the Turkish army,” he said. “We will strike with all that we’ve got, and the people will participate with the peshmerga.”
At the site of a bridge that once connected people from dozens of villages in the Amadiya district, about 15 miles from the Turkish border, the sounds of gunfire and artillery shells were clear. Jets flew over without opening fire, but a peshmerga soldier quickly ushered visiting journalists from the area.
“We must get back,” he said. “It is possible the area will be bombarded.”
Special correspondent Ahmed reported from Shiladezah and Times staff writer Susman from Baghdad. Staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.