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Turkey tells US its troops will stay in Iraq ‘as long as necessary’

by Hande Culpan and Jim Mannion*

Turkey said yesterday its offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq will continue "as long as necessary," rejecting pressure for a speedy end to the military incursion from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
Even as Gates held talks in Ankara, Turkish warplanes bombed positions of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and intensive fighting was reported on the ground near a major rebel base in the Zap area, Iraqi security sources said.
Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul refused to offer a timetable for a pull-out while giving assurances that the incursion, launched on February 21, posed no challenge to Iraqi sovereignity.
"Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary," Gonul said after talks with Gates, adding that the troops will return home once PKK hideouts are destroyed.
"There is no need for us to stay there after we finish the terrorist infrastructure… We have no intention to interfere in (Iraqi) domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area," he said.
Gates pressed for the offensive to be "as short and precisely targeted as possible," and reiterated that it should last no longer than "a week or two".
Washington is particularly concerned that the incursion could broaden into a wider conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish administrators of northern Iraq — two key US allies.
Turkey has long accused the Iraqi Kurds of providing the PKK with safe haven and weapons. It warned the Iraqi Kurds this week not to shelter PKK rebels fleeing the fighting.
Gates urged Ankara to consider political and economic improvements for its sizeable Kurdish community to erode popular support for the PKK, which has fought for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey since 1984.
"Military action alone will not end this terrorist threat… There must be simultaneous efforts made with economic programs and political outreach.
"That's the only way to isolate terrorism from the population and provide a long-term solution to the problem," he said.
The Turkish government is already under pressure at home to improve Kurdish rights, tackle rampant poverty in the southeast and issue an amnesty for PKK rebels to encourage them to lay down arms.
The United States, like Turkey, lists the PKK as a terrorist group and has supported its NATO ally by providing intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq.
Gates played down suggestions the United States could cut off the intelligence supply if Turkey refuses to withdraw quickly.
"We have shared interests and I think those interests are probably not advanced by making threats or by threatening to cut intelligence," he said.
Gates is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and Chief of General Staff Yasar Buyukanit before returning to Washington later yesterday.
The Turkish army says it has so far killed at least 230 PKK militants and destroyed dozens of rebel hideouts, camps and ammunition depots, while losing 27 men.
The PKK claims to have killed around 100 soldiers, lost five and to have downed a Turkish attack helicopter.
Ankara estimates some 4,000 rebels are holed up in northern Iraq.
The PKK took up arms for self-rule in southeast Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed more than 37,000 lives.

*AFP

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