BAGHDAD – Turkey has massed 140,000 soldiers on its border with northern Iraq, Iraq's foreign minister said Monday, calling the neighboring country's fears of Kurdish rebels based there "legitimate" but better resolved through negotiation.
The Turkish military had no comment to the remarks by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd from northern Iraq, and it was unclear where he got the figures. If they are accurate, Turkey would have nearly as many soldiers along its border with Iraq as the 155,000 troops which the U.S. has in the country.
Zebari's comments came amid calls by Turkey's military for the government to give it the green light to carry out military operations in northern Iraqi against the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.
"Turkey is building up forces on the border. There are 140,000 soldiers fully armed on the border. We are against any military interference or violation of Iraqi sovereignty," Zebari said in Baghdad.
Turkey has been pressuring the United States and Iraq to eliminate PKK bases in Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq and has said it will carry out a cross-border offensive if necessary.
"Turkey's fears are legitimate but such things can be discussed," Zebari said. ""The perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders."
He added: "No one wants a new military conflict in the region."
He said there had been no "Turkey military violation until now," citing artillery shelling and Turkish surveillance overflights.
Turkey has long complained of U.S. inaction against separatist rebels, who have escalated attacks inside Turkey in recent months. Last week, Turkey's military chief asked the government to set political guidelines for an incursion into northern Iraq.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Friday confirmed that detailed incursion plans were ready.
Zebari said that his government cannot send its troops to secure the border with Turkey at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are fighting a deadly insurgency that has killed thousands of people.
"Our military forces are over-occupied with securing the streets and we do not have forces enough to open a new front. We do not want any conflict. However, no military violation has taken place till now," Zebari said.
Turkey has been battling separatist Kurdish rebels since 1984 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. There has been a recent surge in rebel attacks, and 67 soldiers have been killed this year. More than 110 rebels were killed in the same period, according to the Turkish military.
Zebari said the best way is to address Turkey's "legitimate security concerns" and revive the security and military commission which is made up of the united states, Iraq and Turkey.