BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s government on Friday urged Turkey to respect its sovereignty after Turkish troops crossed the border to hunt for Kurdish rebels, but said it expected the operation to be limited.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Kurdish Peshmerga security forces in Iraq’s largely autonomous region of Kurdistan had stopped some Turkish ground troops from entering the country. There was no confrontation, he said.
He said the incursion was launched after Turkey obtained intelligence on movements of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels in a remote area inside the border of northern Iraq.
Several Iraqi officials and a senior military officer with coalition forces in Iraq tried to play down the operation, saying only a few hundred Turkish troops were involved.
In Ankara, a senior military source said thousands of Turkish troops had crossed to look for the guerrillas. Turkish television said 3,000 to 10,000 soldiers had entered Iraq.
“Our position is Turkey should respect the sovereignty of Iraq and avoid any military action which would threaten security and stability,” Dabbagh told Reuters.
“We do not expect these operations will expand because they are against the Iraqi and Turkish desire to have good relations.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he had summoned the charge d’affaires from the Turkish embassy in Baghdad to protest the incursion.
Turkish troops had crossed no further than 5 km (3 miles) inside the border, Zebari said.
“There has not been any major incursion or land invasion through the border,” Zebari told Reuters.
Dabbagh said Turkish President Abdullah Gul had called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and told him the incursion would be limited.
But in a worrying sign, Turkish ground troops came face to face with Kurdish Peshmerga security forces on the border.
“The Peshmerga blocked the advance of some Turkish troops without any confrontation,” Dabbagh said.
One senior Kurdish official said tensions between the two forces had escalated on Thursday when Turkish tanks in a base just inside northern Iraq tried to leave the compound. They were also stopped by Peshmerga soldiers.
“I believe we avoided a major crisis yesterday between Turkish and Kurdish troops,” the Kurdish official said.
Turkey has kept small contingents of troops at several bases in northern Iraq since earlier offensives in the 1990s.
NATO member Turkey says it has the right under international law to hit PKK rebels who shelter in northern Iraq and have mounted attacks inside Turkey that have killed scores of troops. Turkey says some 3,000 PKK rebels are based in Iraq.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since it began an armed struggle for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984. Washington and the EU, like Turkey, classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Iraq’s government has repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the PKK presence. It says it has taken some measures to deal with the rebels but is more focused on trying to stabilize the rest of the country.
Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Samia Nakhoul