Turks mull invasion of Iraq after PKK ambush

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The likelihood of a Turkish military attack on northern Iraq has increased after Iraq-based Kurdish guerrillas killed 17 Turkish soldiers and took others prisoner in a cross-border raid.

The Turkish soldiers died when rebels from the PKK movement blew up a bridge in Hakkari province, three miles from the border with Iraq, as a 12-vehicle military convoy was crossing it. In another incident, a mine killed one and wounded at least eight others when it exploded under a minibus. Turkey said 32 rebels were also killed in fighting.

Last night Turkish artillery units shelled Kurdish rebel positions along the rugged Turkish-Iraqi border, and reinforcements were arriving in the region. "Our anger, our hatred is very great," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on national television after calling a crisis meeting of his government to discuss retaliation.

The United States, Turkey's Nato ally, has urged restraint as the northern part of Iraq is the only part of the country which is considered peaceful. The threat of a Turkish invasion has already helped to propel oil towards the $100 a barrel mark. The moderate Islamist government of Mr Erdogan's AK party has sought to avoid a military assault on northern Iraq, which would strain its relations with the US, but it is fearful of being seen as insufficiently patriotic in Turkey. The AK party is also competing for power in Turkey with the Turkish army which has said that an invasion of Iraq is "feasible and necessary".

The Turkish parliament last week overwhelmingly passed a motion enabling the Turkish army to cross into Iraq to pursue the 3,500 PKK guerrillas to their mountain hideouts. In the wake of the latest attacks, it will be difficult for the Turkish government not to follow through on its threat of retaliation. "Our parliament has granted us the authority to act and within this framework we will do whatever has to be done," Mr Erdogan said, adding he would take "an approach that is calm, far from agitation and based on common sense."

Much will depend on how far Turkish forces move into Iraqi Kurdistan. If the incursion is limited to remote mountainous areas, it will be largely symbolic, but this might not be enough to satisfy Turkish public opinion.

It is unlikely, in any case, that Turkish troops will inflict much damage on the PKK whose guerrillas are mobile and dispersed in small cells in inaccessible mountain hideouts where there are few roads.

The Iraqi government in Baghdad has no control over what happens in Iraqi Kurdistan. The leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, said yesterday: "We are not going to be caught up in the PKK and Turkish war, but if Kurdistan region is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens."

The Iraqi Kurds are fearful that the quasi-independent KRG is secretly the target of any Turkish incursion. Turkish governments have looked on in alarm since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the Iraqi Kurds have come close to creating an independent state.

Turkey may also calculate that mounting pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish leaders may compel them to force the PKK to leave the country. In 1998 Syria expelled the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, after Turkish military threats.