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Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

Turkey-Iraq Tensions High as Troops Poised for Major Attack Across Border

(IPS)ANKARA -- The United States made a decisive step Friday towards appeasing Turkish public opinion. Speaking at a press conference here, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) an enemy shared with Turkey. She stressed, however, the importance of the two allies jointly working out a viable solution.

The whole country, in a status of belligerent paroxysm the past 24 hours, had been waiting for the U.S. position. Government officials, politicians, the army, and the media have been adding oil to the fire of popular demand for revenge after the killing of 12 soldiers in an ambush by PKK guerrillas in October.

The news conference followed a meeting Friday between Rice, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

Rice said the U.S. was committed to intensifying its efforts to eliminate the threat to Turkey from the PKK. Recognizing that the situation was destabilizing Iraq, she said it was for the U.S. and Turkey to work together in order to restore security in the region.

"I affirmed to the Prime Minister as well as to the Foreign Minister that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, and indeed that we have a common enemy, that we must find ways to take effective action so that Turkey will not suffer from terrorist attacks," she said.

"This is going to take persistence and it is going to take commitment. This is a very difficult problem...rooting out terrorism is hard."

She did not formulate any direct warnings against military action by Turkey. She had, however, en route to Ankara told reporters Thursday that resorting to incursion into northern Iraq was not in the interest of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.

"Anything that would destabilize the north of Iraq is not going to be in Turkey's interests, it is not going to be in our interests, and it is not going to be in the Iraqis' interests."

Her visit to Ankara aims at convincing Turkey to abstain from crossing over to northern Iraq, which harbors about 3,000 armed PKK members who regularly launch subversive actions against Turkey.

The PKK began guerrilla activities in 1984, demanding independence for the 12 to 19 million ethnic Kurds believed to live in Turkey. The country has a total population of 72 million.

Its claims have now been toned down to the creation of an autonomous province, but Ankara has categorically refused to consider the idea, fearing eventual separatism and a precedent for other minorities in the country. Turkey does not recognize ethnic minorities as separate entities.

Turkey has demanded that the Iraqi government close down the bases PKK maintains in northern Iraq and to hand over its wanted members. This was last week flatly turned down by Massoud Barzani, President of the autonomous northern Iraq, which has jurisdiction over defense and security in the Iraqi province.

Rice did not detail U.S. plans to secure the Turkish border, but said her government already provides "actionable intelligence" on PKK posts, and has obtained cooperation from the northern Iraqi provincial government to reduce the number of border passes in order to better control the movement of PKK commandos.

Neither the government nor the press have been impressed by these assurances. The U.S. has repeatedly been accused in the past here of secretly supplying weapons to PKK, while for many Turks Barzani's word is worthless.

Meanwhile, Ankara has announced a series of measures aimed at isolating northern Iraq, whose economy and energy supplies depend on Turkey. Trucking companies have been instructed to route their vehicles via Syria for commerce and logistics with Iraq, and on Wednesday Turkey imposed a ban on flights to northern Iraq.

This has prompted Baghdad and the north Iraqi regional government to issue new reassuring statements of goodwill to find a mutually satisfactory solution that excludes boycott and armed conflict.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have, nevertheless, put their units on high alert and already deployed 100,000 to 140,000 troops along the 125 mile (200 kilometres) border between Turkey and northern Iraq. Pounding of Iraqi villages by artillery and helicopter gunships became a routine since last weekend, leading to an exodus of women and children from townships along the border.

Since February, when PKK resumed its activities, Turkey has bombed this patch of Iraq's border at least 97 times, with as many as 800 shells and six aerial assaults, says Col. Hussein Thamer, regional head of Iraq's border guards.

Following the recent hostilities between TSK and PKK, increasingly large groups of refugees are reported to be crossing daily into Turkey, where authorities either turn them back or put them in confinement camps.

The economic sanctions and raids against Kurdish villages may be a tactic by Ankara to get the attention of the U.S. administration prior to the talks U.S. President George W. Bush will have with Erdogan in Washington Nov. 5.

Erdogan will travel to the United States Saturday and will be accompanied by two senior military officers. He asked the National Security Council Wednesday to prepare a report with recommendations for the White House and Pentagon to consider.

"I will tell him (Bush) that we expect immediate concrete steps against the terrorists," Erdogan said Thursday. "The problem of the PKK is a sincerity test for everyone. It is important to determine the fate of our future relations."

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Albion Monitor   November 1, 2007   (

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