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Turkey Planning to Cross Into Iraq After Kurdish Guerrillas

Turkey's top general said Thursday his army — which has been massing troops on the border with Iraq — was prepared to attack separatist Kurdish guerrillas in a cross-border offensive.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said the military was ready and awaiting government orders for an incursion, putting pressure on the government to support an offensive that risks straining ties with the United States and Europe and raising tensions with Iraqi Kurds.

"As soldiers, we are ready," Buyukanit said at an international security conference in Istanbul.

Although the United States has branded the guerrillas a terrorist organization, Washington fears that Turkish military action could destabilize northern Iraq — the most stable part of the war-torn country. Washington is also concerned that supporting Turkey in an incursion could alienate the pro-American Iraqi Kurds.

Many Turks believe a major incursion would help finish off the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey since 1984. Turkey's human rights record has been stained by allegations of excessive use of force in the fight against the guerrillas in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Turkey last carried out a major incursion into Iraq a decade ago, before the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. But separatist Kurdish guerrillas, taking advantage of a power vacuum in northern Iraq, have escalated attacks on Turkish targets. The military says up to 3,800 rebels are now based in Iraq, and up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey.

Turkish intelligence reports say that Iraqi Kurdish groups, which previously supported the Turkish military in fighting the guerrillas, were preparing defenses against a possible Turkish incursion into northern Iraq. Turkey fears that Iraqi Kurds want to establish an independent Kurdish state, which could revive the aspirations of separatist Kurds in Turkey.

Although the Turkish government promised to back the military, it has not so far asked Parliament for permission to deploy troops, anticipating problems with Washington, Iraq and the European Union — all of which have urged Turkey to show restraint and find diplomatic ways to deal with the Kurdish rebellion.

Turkey frequently complains that the United States and Iraqi Kurds have done little to stop the separatist rebels.

On Thursday, Buyukanit denounced what he said was a lack of assistance from allies.

"Turkey does not receive the necessary support in its fight against terrorism," the general said. "There are countries which directly or indirectly support PKK terrorism." He did not identify those countries.

Public support for an offensive is high, especially following the recent killings of soldiers and a suicide bombing that killed six people. On Thursday, suspected rebels attacked a group of forestry workers in the predominantly Kurdish province of Bingol, killing four of them and wounding four others, officials said.

On Thursday, military trucks hauled more tanks and guns to the border area, local reporters said. The deployment has made it more difficult for the rebels to retreat to bases in northern Iraq, the military said.

Turkish troops, reinforced by planes and helicopter gunships, have killed 14 PKK guerrillas in operations near the border since Monday.

But the U.S. State Department said Wednesday it had seen no evidence of a significant movement of Turkish military forces in the border.

Past Turkish military incursions have yielded mixed results, with guerrillas sheltering in hide-outs and emerging again after most Turkish units withdrew.

Turkey set up a buffer zone along the 200-mile border in 1997, but gradually withdrew the bulk of its troops under international pressure, leaving about 1,000 inside Iraq. Those troops act as monitors, but have not pursued the rebels.

"To set up a buffer zone, Turkey needs to secure the consent of both Washington and the Iraqi Kurds," said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.

"However, the military buildup clearly puts more pressure on U.S. and Iraqi forces to do something quickly."