WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A large-scale invasion of Northern Iraq by Turkish forces would be a nightmare for the United States and could destabilize the one part of the country that is relatively calm, analysts said on Thursday.
A Web site report on Wednesday that 50,000 Turkish troops poured into Northern Iraq to fight Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas set off alarms in Washington, where U.S. officials scurried to try to find out what, if anything, had happened.
While Turkish, U.S. and Iraqi officials denied any major incursion had taken place, a military source said Turkish troops conducted a limited raid across the mountainous border.
While such operations are not uncommon, analysts said the incident focused attention on the possibility that recent attacks in Turkey blamed on the PKK could prompt major Turkish retaliation against rebels that use Iraq as a safe haven.
Ankara blames the PKK for more than 30,000 deaths since the rebels launched their armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
The risk, analysts said, is that Turkey might become drawn into a wider conflict with Iraqi Kurds even if it initially sought to conduct a small-scale operation, and that other countries, including Iran, might also feel emboldened.
“It could open a Pandora’s box for the quagmire -- the fiasco -- in Iraq to turn into a regional quagmire, with regional countries starting to fight wars on Iraqi territory,” said Brookings Institution analyst Omer Taspinar.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the CSIS think tank in Washington, said, “A complete mess in the North of Iraq creates problems for everything we are trying to do in Iraq. It creates problems for our deep defense relationship with Turkey and it creates an even more chaotic situation in a part of the world where we are desperate for less chaos.”
The roughly 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are already stretched fighting the insurgency and the last thing Washington wants is fighting in northern Iraq, which won autonomy from Saddam Hussein in 1991 and is among the least violent parts of the country.
The United States has made no secret of its views and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the point again on Sunday, telling reporters he hoped “there would not be a unilateral military action across the border into Iraq.”
Analysts said there is growing public sentiment in Turkey for its government to do more to combat the PKK following a series of attacks, but they said there appears to be little appetite in Turkey for any major cross-border action.
“Both the civilian and the military (leadership) do not really want to do an operation that the U.S. government strongly opposes. They have also learned a lesson from Israel’s experience with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, so they don’t want to get into a situation where they are trapped or will be in a protracted conflict,” said Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.
“My concern is that at some point they will have to do something, which is probably going to be limited. The big question is that the intentions could be small scale but ... sometimes there are unforeseen consequences,” she added.
A U.S. official said the key indicator on what Ankara will do will be whether there are additional attacks inside Turkey blamed on the PKK. The group, which the United States views as a terrorist organization, killed seven paramilitary policemen in Turkey this week in the single deadliest attack in a year.
“I think they are likely to hold back short of more significant terrorist attacks inside Turkey,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said.