Istanbul, Turkey — Istanbul, Turkey -- The Turkish military's powerful chief declared yesterday that his army should be given the go-ahead for a cross-border offensive into northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish rebels using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.
The United States has strongly warned Turkey against such an incursion, saying it could destabilize the entire region. Any strike across the border could leave the American military in a difficult position if this fellow member of NATO ends up battling Iraqi Kurds, who are key U.S. allies.
But several Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they feared that in this election year, the Turkish government would succumb to popular sentiment and authorize some kind of military push.
In an unusual public assertion, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said Kurdish rebels who take shelter in the autonomous zone controlled by Kurds in northern Iraq posed an unacceptable danger to Turkey and the army should be allowed to go in after them.
"There is a need for a military operation against the terrorist organization in the north of Iraq," the general told journalists during a televised interview in the capital, Ankara. "Should it be done militarily? Yes, it should. Would it be useful? Yes, it would."
By law, the parliament must give its approval to military operations outside Turkish territory. The army chief's call puts heavy pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to seek such authorization from lawmakers.
"A political decision is required for that," said Buyukanit, whose military has long been a dominant force in Turkey's political life. "The Turkish armed forces have the capacity and means - more than required - to launch such an operation if legally authorized."
A full-blown Turkish military operation in northern Iraq is still considered unlikely by most analysts, but Buyukanit's comments were the latest sign that smaller-scale activity against rebel sanctuaries is increasingly likely - perhaps in the form of airstrikes or commando raids.
"The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq," said Buyukanit. "It has sunk its roots in Iraq."
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.