Turkish troops cross Iraqi border after US-approved bombing raids

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The Independent Online

Some 300 Turkish soldiers crossed into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish guerrillas yesterday in the wake of the heaviest air raids for years by the Turkish airforce on the mountain hideouts of the rebels.

The Turkish military claimed that its soldiers had spotted fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Iraqi side of the border and troops then crossed the frontier.

In Turkey the media has expressed jingoistic delight that its armed forces are hitting back against the PKK, claiming the "PKK headquarters" in the Qandil mountains was destroyed.

In reality, the 2,500 PKK fighters in the high mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan along the borders with Turkey and Iran are dispersed into highly mobile camps hidden in ravines and steep valleys. PKK officials say that their forces have broken up into small units to avoid detection and to limit casualties.

The Turkish incursions are important because they are the most serious since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They also have a serious impact on Turkish domestic politics as well as Turkey's relations with the US and Iraq.

The Turkish government of Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan is eager to carry out high profile military actions against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, but without launching a full scale invasion, because it does not want its patriotic credentials to be questioned by the nationalist right and its allies in the army. But Mr Erdogan has himself pointed out that Turkey's 24 incursions into Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power achieved little.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that 1,800 people have been forced to leave their homes by the military action.

The US is wary of offending Turkey or the Iraqi Kurds who are the only Iraqi community to support the US occupation. The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday during a visit to Iraq that the US, Iraq and Turkey have a "common interest" in stopping the PKK.

The Turks for their part are eager to stress that the air raids at the weekend took place with US approval and assistance. Pentagon officials admitted that the American military had "deconflicted" the airspace for Turkey and provided intelligence.

The Kurdish President Massoud Barzan boycotted a meeting with Ms Rice over the US role and the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the BBC that the US involvement was "unacceptable".