Some 10,000 Turkish troops, backed by F-16 warplanes and Cobra attack helicopters, poured over the border with Iraq last Thursday in the first large-scale cross-border offensive since the Justice and Development Party came to power.
Unlike previous similar operations that usually started in March or April, the timing of this year's offensive took many by surprise. Analysts believe the earlier operation was aimed to strike preemptively the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels before they had a chance to infiltrate into Turkey from their hideouts where they reorganized themselves and found a refuge from the coldest winter in years.
The preemptive strike had killed 230 Kurdish rebels in the past few days, and two dozen soldiers and three pro-government village guards also lost their lives.
The PKK have disputed the figures, saying only a few PKK fighters and more than 80 Turkish soldiers have died.
The toll on both sides could not be independently confirmed. But pressure on Turkey for prompt troop withdrawal was mounting.
The United States has provided Turkey with real-time intelligence on rebel movements, but is deeply concerned that a long-term offensive might undermine Iraq's stability.
US President George W. Bush said Thursday that Turkey's offensive in northern Iraq should be limited and Ankara should withdraw its troops "as soon as possible".
"The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out," Bush said.
.S Defense Secretary Robert Gates who was in Ankara said earlier that he would tell Turkish officials that the assault must not last longer than a week or two.
Iraq has condemned the operation as an "unacceptable" violation of its sovereignty that threatens bilateral relations.
To mend fences with the southeastern neighbor, Turkey sent a delegation to Baghdad Wednesday for talks with Iraqi officials on the cross-border action.
Yet, Ankara was resolute on its decision, saying it will withdraw its troops once the objective is achieved but has given no timeframe.
"Turkey is in a rightful struggle against the terrorist organization that is threatening regional peace and stability... Turkey has the right to defend itself, eliminate those that harm its citizens' peace, unity and solidarity," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The PKK, listed by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist group, took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast of the country. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the over-two-decade conflict.
Analysts believe that with the help of US intelligence, Turkish troops have severely crippled the PKK rebels through airstrikes and artillery assaults, forcing them to disperse and on the run. This crushing defeat, coupled with unusually bad weather, made it more difficult for the rebels to regain strength any time soon.
But some analysts noted that PKK rebels are apt at playing mouse-and-cat game by scattering into small groups when confronted with large Turkish troops and staging a comeback once the troops withdraw.
As its cross-border operation continues, Ankara will be under increasing pressure from Washington and Baghdad to pull out its troops. Therefore, it remains to be seen what Turkey can really achieve from its massive operation.
(Xinhua News Agency February 29, 2008)