Turkey hits Kurd rebels near N. Iraq

By Selcan Hacaoglu, AP

SIRNAK, Turkey — Turkish warplanes bombed suspected positions of Kurdish rebels on Wednesday as the prime minister said preparations for parliamentary approval of a military mission against separatist fighters in Iraq were under way.

Authorities also detained 20 Kurds with suspected rebel links at a border crossing.

Turkish troops were blocking rebel escape routes into Iraq while F-16 and F-14 warplanes and Cobra helicopters dropped bombs on possible hideouts, Dogan news agency reported. The military had dispatched tanks to the region to support the operation against the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The military activity followed attacks by PKK rebels that have killed 15 soldiers since Sunday and prompted Turkey’s government to push for a possible cross border offensive against separatist bases in Iraq. Turkish Kurd rebels have been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

A cross border operation could hurt Turkey’s relationship with the United States, which wants to preserve the relative stability in northern Iraq, a region that has escaped the violence afflicting much of the rest of the country.

Turkey and the United States are NATO allies, but ties have also been tense over a U.S. congressional bill that would label the mass killings of Armenians by Turks around the time of World War I as genocide.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey told reporters that preparations for a parliamentary authorization for a cross-border mission were under way, but did not say when the motion would reach Parliament. The preparations “have started and are continuing,” he said.

The measure was unlikely to get to Parliament before the end of a four-day religious holiday on Sunday, an official of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party said. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

If parliament approves, the military could choose to launch an operation immediately or wait to see if the United States and its allies, jolted by the Turkish action, decide to crack down on the rebels.

Turkey conducted two dozen large-scale incursions into Iraq between the late 1980s and 1997. The last such operation, in 1997, involved tens of thousands of troops and government-paid village guards.

An opposition nationalist party called on the government on Wednesday to take the motion to Parliament quickly and said it would back it.

Such a large-scale military incursion could open a new front in Iraq. It would also disrupt one of the few relatively peaceful areas of Iraq and would jeopardize Turkey’s ties with the United States, which has urged Ankara not to take unilateral steps.

Authorities on Wednesday said they detained 20 Kurds, including eight women, at the Habur border gate with Iraq, the governor’s office for Sirnak said. Two of the 20 were carrying false ID cards.

The office said the suspects had attended a PKK meeting and that those attending were told to prepare for violence against government offices.