ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey has sent large contingents of reinforcement soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers to its border with Iraq as debate heated up over whether to stage a cross-border offensive to hit Kurdish rebel bases.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday urged the United States and Iraq to destroy bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq as Turkish military deployed more tanks and soldiers on the border.
The images of military trucks rumbling along the remote border with Iraq's Kurdish zone and tanks being transferred on trains and trucks to beef up an already formidable force there have occupied television screens and front pages of several newspapers in the last few weeks.
The Turkish military has said it routinely reinforces the border with Iraq in the summer to prevent infiltrations by the guerrillas.
"The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Iraq and Turkey," Turkey's special envoy to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, told CNN-Turk television on Wednesday before a visit to Iraq to discuss Turkish demands that Iraq and U.S. forces crack down on the group.
Asked whether Turkey could take unilateral action, Celikkol said: "Our expectation is that this issue is resolved before it comes to that point."
Erdogan said a cross-border Turkish operation was not off the table.
"The target is to achieve results. Our patience has run out. The necessary steps will be taken when needed," Erdogan said.
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.
The Turkish military says up to 3,800 rebels are now based across the border in Iraq and that up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey.
Iraqi Kurdish groups have threatened to resist a Turkish incursion. If U.S. forces — who are stretched thin across Iraq — take action, they risk alienating Iraqi Kurds, the most pro-American group in the region. If they don't, they risk increased tensions — and possibly worse — with two powerful rivals.
"Our expectation from the United States and Iraq is to scatter and destroy the bases of the terrorist organization in northern Iraq," Erdogan said Tuesday. "They either turn them over or send them elsewhere. We have to achieve results."
Last week, a suicide bomb blamed on the rebels killed six people in Ankara, and a bomb in a southeastern area where guerrillas are active killed six Turkish soldiers. Another soldier died on Wednesday when he stepped on a mine, believed to be planted by the guerrillas near the Iraqi border.
"All the explosives used by the PKK in Turkey are traced back to Iraq," Celikkol said.
Turkish troops say they have killed 10 guerrillas in the country's southeast since Monday.
Ankara has repeatedly expressed its disappointment with Washington for what it says is a failure to crack down on Kurdish rebels who take refuge in northern Iraq and frequently attack soldiers and government targets in Turkey.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands since the rebels took up arms in 1984