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Turkish Troops Operating Inside Iraq
Media Review Gives Incomplete Picture But Good Sense of What Is Happening
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 12/18/2007 11:44 AM ET
Iraqis inspect the damage following air strikes by Turkish warplanes in Qandil, 16 December 2007.
Shwan Mohammad/AFP/Getty
Iraqis inspect the damage following air strikes by Turkish warplanes in Qandil, 16 December 2007.

A fury of reportage was launched by a KRG spokesman's announcement Tuesday that Turkish troops had crossed the border into northern Iraq.

The Turkish government has not yet confirmed any operations have followed the aerial bombardment of villages along the border over the weekend, and US officials have declined many opportunities to comment.

While the Turkish media hasn't gotten on top of the story much yet, the wire services are all over it. Here's a round-up of the reporting so far, in hopes a sliver of ground truth can be extracted from the profusion of confusion.

What we know so far....

Babbar Yawar, the spokesman of the regional administration in north of Iraq, claimed Tuesday a group of Turkish troops entered Galirash region, near the intersection of Iran-Iraq border.

"Gunshots were heard in the region where Turkish troops entered," he said.

Yawar said the area is surrounded by mountains and has no peshmerga presence, though border guards had reported hearing the gunshots.

Yawar said, "We interpret it as Turkish troops have been in a clash with the PKK members. We have not received any detailed information yet."

Jamal Abdullah, spokesman for northern Iraq's Kurdish regional administration, later told AFP, "Three hundred Turkish soldiers entered three kilometres (nearly two miles) inside northern Iraq."

Reuters reports an unnamed Turkish military official said soldiers intervened after spotting PKK militants across the border. There were no reports of any casualties from what he described as "a limited clash" with the separatists.

"Two PKK groups were spotted just across the border and it was determined that they were planning attacks and a battalion of soldiers intervened," the military official said.

AFP talked to a leader of the PKK, who also confirmed the Turkish operation.

"Turkish infantry backed by aircraft entered the Iraqi borders in Khawakurt (on the Iraq-Turkey-Iran border) at 4:00 am," the man told AFP on condition of anonymity.

A Turkish government official, speaking in Ankara on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed for the AP that around 300 Turkish soldiers penetrated into northern Iraq.

"They are still there," he said without elaborating.

Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper speculated that the troops could be commando units trying to block the possible escape routes of the PKK trying to flee back into Turkey after Sunday's aerial bombardment.

The "Kurdistan" television channel, owned by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani's party, reported that Turkish soldiers had proceeded several kilometers inside Iraq near an area called Seed Qan, reaching the villages of Khaya Rash, Bunwaq, Janarouq and Kelirosh.

"The troops are now based there," the news report said.

A Kurdish border guard confirmed the Turkish incursion for AFP, saying ominously that "more are coming." However, a senior Iraqi military official who asked not to be named told Reuters the incursion appeared unlikely to develop into larger military action: "I think this is a limited incursion and will not be expanded," the source said.

Pukmedia, the online news service backed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, reports that the Turkish troops are already starting to withdraw. The account, however, was based on a single anonymous source.

Pukmedia earlier posted single source accounts of elements of Tuesday's operation, reporting that the offensive began with a wave of troops being airdropped, followed by about 700 soldiers crossing on foot, while 20 tanks stood ready at the border.

Though Bloomberg leads its story today by citing the Pukmedia account, no other media outlet has confirmed anything adding credence to the information. Having tanks on the border and parachuting the leading edge of commandoes into the area sounds like nothing unusual, but one has to assume the single source had trouble estimating the number of troops involved, since all other confirmations pointed to a force of about 300 men.

What to expect next.....

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday the military would continue operations against the PKK when asked during a press conference about reports of Turkish troops crossing the border into northern Iraq.

"Our army is doing whatever is necessary. Our security forces will continue to do whatever is necessary," Erdogan said.

Based on a review of all the reporting, it would probably be safe to conclude that today's news of Turkish troops crossing into Iraq will turn out to have been a limited hot pursuit cross-border incursion--something the Turkish army has a history of doing, and will continue to do.

Kurdish and Iraqi leaders have to adopt harsh rhetorical responses as a necessity of domestic political concerns, but have so far been tolerant of the Turkish army's incursions. These is some concern, however, that ongoing and unpredictable antagonism could push the Iraqi Kurds into a more aggressively defensive mindset--a worry exacerbated by Fuad Hussein's reminder to the peshmerga on Tuesday.

Hussein, the head of President Barzani's office, announced Tuesday that no clashes had been reported between Turkish forces and the peshmerga since the army had begun to trespass on Kurdish land. However, he added, “The Peshmerga forces are commanded to defend the sovereignty, the lives and properties of Kurdistan region’s civilians if the Turkish forces further approach and harm the villages.”

If unfortunate circumstances lead to a spontaneous armed clash between the Turkish army and peshmerga forces, the entire calculus for assessing the probability of conflict on Iraq's northern border will alter dramatically with the first casualty.

Aftermath of aerial bombing

UNHCR said Tuesday that Turkish bombs had forced 1,800 people to leave their homes in northern Iraqi villages over the the weekend.

"The shelling is apparently ongoing and we don't know if more people are displaced," UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort said at a press conference in Geneva. "Winter has set in and living conditions are very harsh."

Representatives of a number of humanitarian organizations, including IMC, IRD, and KHRW, visited Sangasar on Tuesday, where those who fled the Turkish bombing in the Qandil mountains have taken up temporary residence. More humanitarian assistance is expected to arrive in coming days as the organizations work to provide relief for those displaced by the Turkish offensive.


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