PKK tactics may drive Turkey into a reluctant invasion

Soon after midnight last Sunday, a detachment of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) surrounded a 50-strong unit of the Turkish army near the village of Daglica in Hakkari province, three miles from Turkey's border with Iraq.

The operation was well planned. The PKK guerrillas first cut the electricity and telephone lines to the Turkish army post and then isolated it by blowing up a bridge. The besieged soldiers could see the PKK taking up positions through their night-vision equipment and monitored their radio communications.

When the PKK did attack it overran the outpost, killing at least 16 Turkish soldiers, wounding 17 and capturing eight whom the PKK still holds. The PKK claims only three of its men were slightly wounded and later released pictures of the Turkish prisoners.

It was the most effective PKK action for years and the Turkish government's reaction to it has re-launched the PKK as a political player in the region. It is no longer an irrelevant relic of its failed bid to lead the 15 million Turkish Kurds to independence which collapsed after its military defeat in the 1990s and the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

Sunday's attack had an explosive impact on Turkey because the Turkish army and its civilian supporters are eager to persuade Turks that the moderate Islamist government is insufficiently patriotic. For his part, the Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan had been skilfully threatening to send the army across the border but not in fact doing so.

Talking to PKK leaders in their headquarters in the Qandil mountains it is not clear how far they are trying to tempt Turkey into a trap by provoking it into invading northern Iraq. A Turkish invasion would be much in the PKK's interests since the Turkish army would become embroiled with the powerful military forces of the Iraqi Kurds.

The PKK leaders do not feel themselves in much danger. The mountains and gorges have been a redoubt for guerrillas for thousands of years. "Nobody can get us out of here," says Bozan Tekin, a PKK leader, pointing to the mountain walls surrounding the cluster of stone houses where we met. He claimed that Alexander the Great had been balked by the mountains of Kurdistan and suggested the Turks would be no more successful.

The natural defences of the Qandil are impressive. We started in the plain below the mountains in the village of Sangassar and then drove along the side of steep hills, dotted with small oak trees, which fall away on one side to form a gorge.

At the top of a pass we entered PKK territory, the entrance to which is guarded by a series of checkpoints and PKK fighters in uniform. They told us to keep straight on to the village of Kurtak and not to divert off the road. Diversions were not tempting since the only side roads are rutted paths leading further into the mountains. Houses are few though nomads herding sheep had pitched their tents by the streams and were gathering firewood.

One of several difficulties facing a Turkish invasion force is that they are unlikely to locate the PKK in this wilderness of mountains. The place we met Bozan Tekin was miles away from the nearest PKK camp which, say local sources, can only be reached after an hour in a vehicle and seven or eight hours trek on foot. The base itself consists of scattered houses hidden in a cleft between the rocks.

But the strength of the PKK position has less to do with geography and more to do with the politics of the region. Since it was founded in 1978 the PKK has always benefited from Ankara's refusal to recognise that there is a Kurdish minority and the stifling of all means of constitutional protest. It still does.

Militarily, the PKK are not very strong. The figure given for its forces inside northern Iraq is about 3,000. They claim that they have been trying to abide by a ceasefire since 1 October 2006, but it is a curiously flexible ceasefire that includes the right of self-defence and retaliation. The PKK's pin-prick attacks do not have much military impact on the 100,000 Turkish soldiers massed north of the border. But they do inflict serious political damage on the Turkish government because any Turkish casualties drive it towards an invasion of Iraq that it does not want to carry out.

There is a further problem for Turkey that is also largely of its own making. The only Iraq force capable of evicting the PKK from its mountains is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Massoud Barzani. But Turkey refuses to recognise the KRG because it is Kurdish and will only deal with the Iraqi government in Baghdad which, as one observer put it, has "about as much influence in Iraqi Kurdistan as Britney Spears".

In an interview with Aljazeera English television Masrour Barzani, the powerful head of the Kurdish intelligence service (Parastin), says pointedly that if the KRG is not consulted about an agreement between Baghdad and Ankara then it will not necessarily go along with it. In any case, he says the PKK bases are "in remote and isolated areas" outside his government's control.

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