Baghdad says a Turkish military operation against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq this week was not an attack on the country's sovereignty -- but international concern is nevertheless high over Ankara's move.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh has warned Turkey that the operation "should not destabilize the region.
The Turkish authorities launched the cross-border attack on February 21 after accusing the Iraqi government of failing to stop members of the PKK from using the area as a safe haven. It is the first confirmed Turkish ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
"Turkey's attack on this area started last Thursday. They attacked us with warplanes and long-range artillery," said Hameed, a Kurdish resident of northern Iraq's border area with Turkey. "They damaged about five bridges, the first bridge that had been damaged was linking Sirin with about 10 villages. The attacks on our villages started last Thursday [and continued] and lasted until Saturday."
Claims about damage from the fighting vary and cannot be independently confirmed.
The PKK has vowed to continue fighting and has called for Kurdish youth living in Turkey's cities to "give their reply" to the ongoing operations in northern Iraq. On February 24, the pro-PKK Firat news agency quoted senior PKK commander Bahoz Erdal as saying that if Ankara wants to destroy the PKK, Kurdish young people must make Turkish cities "uninhabitable."
The United States, a close ally of both Ankara and Baghdad, is calling for restraint in the conflict.
Speaking on February 24 during a visit to Australia, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Ankara should employ economic and political measures to erode the Kurdish militant group's support base. Gates, who is scheduled to travel to Ankara next week, insisted that Turkish military strikes alone would not destroy the PKK.
Huseyin Bagci, professor of International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, agrees.
"It seems that Turkey is going to be successful [in] its operation, but it's definitely not going to finish the PKK as an organization and as a problem in this part of the region," Bagci said.
Several thousand troops took part in Turkey's military operation according to press reports. The Turkish army gave no details on numbers but said the troops would return home "in the shortest time possible."
The Turkish military has said troops, backed by warplanes and combat helicopters, have killed 79 rebels since the start of the offensive. It has also confirmed the deaths of seven soldiers.
The PKK claims more than 20 Turkish soldiers were killed and that it had shot down a Turkish Cobra attack helicopter on February 23. Given the remoteness of the area in which the fighting is taking place, it is virtually impossible to verify the claims of either side.
The leadership of Iraq's Kurdish region has said that Turkey's incursion will be met with "massive resistance" if civilians are attacked.
In the Turkey's mostly Kurdish border city of Cizre, businessman Azad Urek said increased tension in the region will further harm traffic between the two countries.
"We really want these clashes to stop," Urek said. "As far as we can remember there have always been clashes in southeastern [Turkey]. May it stop so that we can make investments, improve our businesses, and make our dreams come true. Every single year we repeat our hope that the clashes may stop, but because of these clashes our dreams have never come true."
More than 30,000 people have been killed since the PKK began fighting for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey in 1984. The United States, the EU, and Turkey consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a news conference today that the country had reinforced its borders after Turkish forces launched its offensive.
Iranian forces have been battling in the western regions with rebels from the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which is often associated with the PKK.
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