Source AP ©

Turkey debates over possibility to attack Kurdish rebels

A roadside bomb killing six Turkish soldiers on Thursday and a deadly suicide bombing days earlier have excited debate in Turkey about whether to attack Kurdish rebels operating across the border in northern Iraq.

The attack on a military vehicle in rugged terrain in southeast Turkey near the border with Iraq and the bombing on a bustling thoroughfare in Ankara took place amid growing frustration over the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which has stepped up cross-border raids from hide-outs in northern Iraq.

The PKK, however, denied involvement in Tuesday's suicide bombing outside a shopping mall, which killed six people and injured dozens. The group accused the Turkish military of trying to win support from the United States and Iraqi Kurds for an incursion into Iraq.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would back Turkey's generals if they decide to strike Kurdish rebels in Iraq.

But the country is preparing for early general elections on July 22 that were organized as a way to resolve a political conflict between the Islamic-leaning government and the military-backed, secular establishment. Any military incursion into Iraq could end up dominating the debate ahead of the vote.

Also, the United States has urged Turkey to show restraint, fearing a cross-border operation could disrupt efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Turkish military action in Iraq could benefit the rebels by subjecting civilians on both sides of the border to hardship reminiscent of more intense fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, undermining a degree of reconciliation between Turkey and the Kurds. Turkey has granted more rights to the Kurds as part of its effort to join the European Union.

Past cross-border operations have yielded mixed results, with many guerrillas sheltering in hide-outs and emerging to do battle again once the bulk of Turkish units withdrew from Iraq.

Six Turkish soldiers died and 10 were injured in Thursday's roadside blast near the southeastern town of Sirnak, the governor's office said. Thousands of Turkish troops are pursuing Kurdish guerrillas in the area, in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands since rebels took up arms in 1984.

Erdogan urged Washington to crack down on separatists based in Iraq.

"If the terrorist organization is based in northern Iraq, then the United States must fulfill its responsibility," Erdogan said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The U.S. military, however, is overstretched in its fight against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in other parts of Iraq.

"It is out of the question for us to fall into a disagreement with our security forces, soldiers, on this issue," Erdogan told private ATV television late Wednesday in response to a question about where he stands on a possible cross-border operation.

"The government is fearful of the consequences of a possible incursion into Iraq, as ties with the USA. and the Kurds could easily be damaged," said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.

"The latest events have hinted that (the ruling party) will have to change its policy and employ an approach closer to that of the military," he said.

In April, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the military, said: "An operation into Iraq is necessary."

The Turkish military says up to 3,800 rebels are based just across the border in Iraq and that up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey. Turkey is also concerned that Iraqi Kurds' efforts to incorporate the oil center of Kirkuk into their self-governing region in northern Iraq could embolden rebels seeking self-rule in southeast Turkey.

One analyst told NTV that a pre-election incursion was unwise because it would dominate the political debate ahead of the July 22 vote.

"The incursion is necessary, but it needs to wait for two months," said Senol Kantarci, chief adviser for the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis.

In the PKK's statement on the suicide bombing, commanders of the group said, "We openly declare that we have no involvement and do not approve of this kind of act."

The PKK has denied involvement in similar attacks in the past. In some cases, militants suspected of ties to the rebel group later claimed responsibility.

Private NTV television, quoting police officials, said the bomb was made of plastic explosives. The military says the PKK is smuggling hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives into the country from Iraq.

Turkish authorities identified the bomber as Guven Akkus, a 28-year-old from the Kurdish southeast who spent time in prison for hanging illegal posters and taking part in the beating of a policeman during May Day demonstrations. Officials did not describe the posters.

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