ANKARA Turkey warned on Tuesday that it was preparing a possible ground operation against Kurdish separatist militants in northern Iraq, depending on the result of talks with Iraq.
Turkey's armed forces said last week that air and artillery strikes in August had killed 145 to 160 Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Air operations are continuing.
"Given that a cross-border operation is being carried out by air, a ground operation can be launched at any time depending on talks with our neighbor," Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin told reporters, adding that an assessment for a ground operation was under way.
A senior Turkish diplomat has been in Iraq for talks with the government this week as Ankara seeks more cooperation against the PKK from Iraq, whose large Kurdish minority, concentrated in the north, is politically influential.
Turkish media said Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu met Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, in Baghdad as well as Kurdish regional officials in Arbil.
"The Turkish delegation is still in Iraq and is still in talks with Iraqi top officials. The delegation met the president and Prime Minister (Nuri al-Maliki). I can't say what has been concluded from the meetings as talks are still going on," said Naseer al-Ani, Talabani's chief of staff.
Speculation that a ground offensive could be launched imminently was fueled on Monday when Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met military chiefs before leaving on a visit to Egypt.
Turkey has launched several cross-border air and ground operations in northern Iraq during a conflict that first erupted in the 1980s. The PKK is fighting for greater autonomy and Kurdish rights, having earlier sought a separate state.
The last major incursion was in early 2008, when Turkey sent 10,000 troops, backed by air power, into northern Iraq.
Earlier this month, Turkey's southeastern neighbor Iran said its troops had killed or wounded 30 members of the PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), an offshoot of the PKK. [ID:nL5E7K313H].
The PKK has said it believes Turkey and Iran are coordinating attacks in the region and says it will join forces with the PJAK in response.
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday that the government was in talks with the United States to provide a base for a fleet of U.S. Predator drones now stationed in Iraq, raising the prospect that they could be used to target PKK camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.
The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and
is now listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. More than 40,000 people have died in the separatist insurgency.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Alastair Macdonald; and Louise Ireland)