go to top

Turkish Forces Reportedly Enter Northern Iraq

Friday, Feb. 22, 2008

A few days ago, Turkish FM Ali Babacan reiterated that Turkey still reserved the option of cross-border incursions into northern Iraq, weather permitting, to complement the artillery and bombing campaign they've been using to target PKK rebel camps in the Qandil Mountains. I figured the remarks were geared towards preparing public opinion for a spring offensive, since the winter weather in the Qandil Mountains is not very conducive to ground operations.

But this morning come reports that the Turkish Army just sent 10,000 ground forces into northern Iraq following an artillery and air barrage. According to Hurriyet (Turkey), the U.S. and Iraqi governments were informed of the operation by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, but the Iraqi FM continues to deny that any Turkish troops have entered Iraq. In the past, Turkey has entered northern Iraq in hot pursuit operations of PKK guerillas crossing back into Iraq from Turkish territory. But sending in 10,000 troops suggests that this is no hot pursuit operation, especially since it follows a coordinated bombardment.

What's even more alarming than the incursion, which in all likelihood is in isolated mountainous terrain, is the standoff between armored troops from Turkey's FOB's in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish Peshmergas that occurred yesterday. Turkey has maintained a number of these bases in northern Iraq since 1997, with troops (usually described as special forces) numbering in the range of 1,000-plus. Apparently they deployed with tanks yesterday in order to seal off some villages (to deny forward PKK mountain bases access to supplies and reinforcements?), but were prevented from advancing by a Peshmerga force, which proceeded to encircle the Turkish base once the Turkish troops had retreated back to it. Hundreds of Peshmerga reinforcements were then reportedly deployed from Irbil overnight.

So what could trigger this kind of operation? The only thing I've noticed recently that could conceivably be considered a "development" is that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced he would travel to Irbil and meet with KRG President (and chief Kurdish hothead) Massoud Barzani during his upcoming visit to Iraq. The announcement was considered a message to Ankara, although a very complicated one, since Iran is engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign with PKK sister-group, PEJAK, which is based in the same mountain range but targets Iran for armed guerilla attacks, rather than Turkey. If Ahmadinejad's visit was in fact a message, it would seem that Ankara has just sent its reply.

According to Hurriyet, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara refused comment but stated that it is "monitoring the situation." Sounds like a good idea.

Update: A quick word about the Turkish FOB's in northern Iraq, since a number of people have expressed surprise about them. They're a remnant of Turkey's last major ground incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan during the 90's, and their rules of engagement are strictly limited to reconnaissance operations. They're not a secret, but no one really likes to talk about them too much on either side of the border. This isn't the first incident between the Turkish FOB troops and Kurdish Peshmergas. Over at HJ, I flagged an incident last June involving a tense standoff at a Peshmerga checkpoint, but that was a case of mistaken identity involving Turkish special ops forces in civilian attire.

What's significant about this latest incident is that it's a case of Peshmerga troops standing down Turkish forces to keep them from overstepping their rules of engagement. As such, it demonstrates that Massoud Barzani is not just blowing wind when he threatens to intervene in the event of a Turkish incursion. My hunch is that he's drawing a line to distinguish what's off limits (ie. Kurdish villages behind the lines). But his reaction to yesterday's developments will be decisive.

Late Update: Hurriyet has got a pretty informative rundown of the breaking developments, both military and diplomatic. Initial American reaction is that in light of the fact that the counterinsurgency tactics already in place had been working well, "a land operation is a whole new level" of operations and "not the greatest news".