(Adds Talabani, paragraphs 14-15)
By Gareth Jones
ANKARA, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Turkey will not send troops into northern Iraq against Kurdish separatists should the militants disarm, ruling AK Party members were quoted as saying on Friday, in an apparent change of tack aimed at ending the border crisis.
Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops near its mountainous border, backed up by tanks, artillery and warplanes, ahead of a possible major cross-border incursion to crush armed groups of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) hiding there. A top general, Ilker Basbug, said late on Thursday the army was already "in the process of implementing" a cross-border operation, but the region remained quiet on Friday, suggesting any offensive is still only in the preparatory stages.
Many commentators believe Turkey has no real intention of staging a major incursion, but generals and politicians are keen to give an impression that firm action is being taken. An opinion poll published on Friday showed some 81 percent of Turks favour a cross-border operation into Iraq against the PKK.
The lawmakers’ comments are the latest sign Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is anxious to avoid a risky, large-scale armed intervention that would also upset Washington.
"We say the way to peace and a solution lies with the PKK laying down its weapons... If they lay down their arms, we will not of course have to conduct an operation," senior AK Party lawmaker Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat told the new Taraf daily.
"We will take all the democratisation steps from the moment they lay down arms. But we will not discuss anything before they lay down their arms. Arms are the only obstacle in the way of talks and taking steps," said Firat, who is of Kurdish origin.
His view was echoed by another AK Party lawmaker, Kutbettin Arzu of Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey’s Kurdish southeast.
Erdogan himself this week alluded to the importance of the PKK disarming to help avert an incursion. But he made no mention of an amnesty for rebels, a likely PKK pre-condition.
In recent years, Turkey has eased some restrictions on Kurdish language and culture as part of its bid to join the European Union, but activists say the reforms are insufficient.
In a fresh challenge for Turkish democracy, prosecutors said on Friday they had opened a court case against the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) after its calls for autonomy for the southeast region, saying they undermined national unity.
The DTP backs more cultural and political rights for Turkey’s large ethnic Kurdish population but is viewed by many Turks as a mouthpiece for the PKK, a charge it denies.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since the group launched its armed insurgency in 1984. Like Turkey, the United States and the European Union also class the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, said on Friday some kind of Turkish military action was "now almost inevitable" but need not necessarily harm bilateral relations.
"(A cross-border operation) will not affect relations between Iraq and Turkey or between the Turks and the Kurds (if limited in scope)," he told the official Kuwait news agency KUNA in an interview.
Despite continued clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, both Erdogan’s government and powerful army generals say military methods alone will never defeat the PKK or resolve the Kurdish issue.
On Thursday Basbug, Turkey’s second highest-ranking general, stressed the need to tackle the root causes behind the PKK’s enduring presence in southeast Turkey.
"The fight against terrorism would be much shorter if the state could control participation to the terrorist organisation and took some steps towards dissolving those PKK groups in the mountains," he told reporters, without elaborating.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn repeated his call for Turkey to avoid any major military action in Iraq.
"Turkey is expected to respect Iraq’s territorial sovereignty and to form its actions accordingly in order not to weaken Iraq’s political situation, which is improving," he said. (Additional reporting by Evren Mesci and Hatice Aydogdu in Ankara, Dubai and Helsinki bureaux; Editing by Dominic Evans)