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Turkey-US relations get tougher

Turkey gets more and more cautious about Iraq. Helicopters and jet fighters fly reconnaissance missions over the conflict zone.

Local residents who saw Turkish troops pursue Kurdish rebels over the border in the 1980s and 1990s, with inconclusive results, believe a new operation will be no different.

This time, more is at stake. There is concern about hurting Turkey's relationship with the United States, and fear in Iraq of instability in its north, which has escaped the violence that plagues the rest of the country.

In addition, any economic fallout could destroy livelihoods in the poor region. Turkey provides electricity and oil products to the Iraqi Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, and the annual trade volume at Habur Gate, the main border crossing, is more than $10 billion (EUR7.4 billion).

"If this border gate is closed because of war, then everybody in this region will suffer," said Mehmet Yavuz, a Turkish truck driver, hauling cement to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. "This border gate is daily bread for us."

Still, Turkish leaders are gearing up for a possible cross-border operation despite opposition from Washington and Iraqi Kurds, who say they are unable to control Turkish Kurd rebels fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey while seeking refuge in remote mountains in Iraq.

For now, residents of the border towns of Cizre, Silopi and Sirnak are sipping tea at outdoor cafes at night while shopping for candy dayside for the religious holiday this week marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Kurdish separatist rebels operate mostly in rural, sparsely populated areas, but concern in the towns and cities is growing.

The mostly Kurdish residents on the Turkish side of the border fear that despite increased attacks by the Kurdish rebels who killed around 30 people - half of them soldiers - in less than two weeks, a cross-border offensive against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is unlikely to bring peace after more than two decades of fighting.

But Turkish military leaders have described an incursion as a necessary tactic to push back the rebels and disrupt their safe havens and supply lines. The government is also deeply frustrated at its inability to curb attacks by concentrating on operations within its own borders, and under pressure to show resolve to an outraged public.

The PKK is branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Its war with Turkey has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.

On both sides of the border, local Kurds say Turkey should consider economic development and other nonmilitary means as ways to end the rebellion.

"Blood has been shed for more than 20 years now, and it helps no one," said truck driver Abdurrahman Iscan.

The Iraqi Kurdish regional government's spokesman, Jamal Abdullah, said an incursion could undermine Iraq and the region.

"We do believe that the solution of this problem is not in the military operation but a political and interior one," he said. "Military operations will not solve this problem as they have been launched since 1984 and the problem still exists."

The government on Wednesday said it will seek the authorization of Parliament to send soldiers across the border into Iraq. Turkey has urged the United States and Iraq to crack down on Kurdish rebel bases and has not been satisfied with the level of cooperation. Turkey has accused Iraqi Kurdish leaders of tolerating the presence of their ethnic brethren in the PKK; Iraqi Kurds dispute the assertion, saying they don't have the resources to mount a costly campaign against the PKK.

"The government was forced to take such a decision in the face of growing public anger. Otherwise it is not wise to take such a step that could hamper ties with the United States and Iraqi Kurds," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert. "However, it is not clear whether the government is really ready to order such an offensive."

Much of the mountainous border area is off-limits to journalists. Some troop activity and transfer of tanks by trucks could be seen in the area as warplanes and helicopters flew over the rugged terrain.

Adding to the tense ties with the United States, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote to U.S. President George W. Bush Tuesday, warning that passage of a U.S. congressional bill recognizing the mass killings of Armenians by Turks around the time of World War I as genocide would harm ties.

"If the Armenian genocide resolution passes, then I think that the possibility of a cross-border operation is very high," said Ihsan Dagi of the Department of International Relations of Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

Military experts who know the rough terrain say the army is unlikely to finish off the battle-hardened guerrillas, who would quickly move into caves or head deeper into northern Iraq to main bases on the Qandil Mountain, 180 kilometers (110 miles) away from the Turkish border.

Turkey has previously staged incursions into northern Iraq, but never went as far as Qandil, which sits on the Iranian-Iraqi border.

There, the guerrilla group trains and indoctrinates fighters at a huge tent and cave city, complete with ovens, classrooms, gardens and generators, according to reporters who have visited the main camp.

The Turkish military, which last carried out a major incursion into Iraq a decade ago with some 50,000 troops, estimates 3,800 guerrillas operate from Iraq and 2,300 are inside Turkey.

In the past, Turkish soldiers freely crossed the border under a deal with Saddam Hussein's government to carry out offensives against Kurdish rebels. Saddam is dead and that deal is no longer valid. The United States fears that any major Turkish operation could lead to serious tensions with Iraqi Kurds, a key ally in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

"It could be a major blow to the (PKK) and it would allow Turkey to show its determination," Ret. Gen. Edip Baser told private NTV television. "But it will never mean the end of terrorism. This is what our experiences have shown us."

Terrorism expert Ozcan warned the PKK could possibly benefit from a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq.

"It could help the PKK to increase its popularity, it will start organizing news conferences and issue statements about its cause and have its voice heard around the world," Ozcan said.

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