February 28, 2008 / 12:26 PM / in 11 years

Turkey targets Iraq Kurds, not just rebels: Kurd PM

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Kurdistan’s prime minister said he suspected Turkey’s incursion into northern Iraq was meant to target the Kurdish region and not just separatist guerrilla bases in the remote mountainous area.

Thousands of Turkish troops, backed by tanks, attack helicopters and warplanes, crossed into northern Iraq on February 21 in an operation which Ankara said was aimed at Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas and their bases.

“We’re not convinced whether these attacks are truly against the PKK or if they are actually against the Kurdistan region of Iraq,” said Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of largely autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

“The actions of the Turkish military in attacking bridges in the border areas, which are important to people there, makes us anxious,” Barzani told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.

PKK fighters have used bases in the area in a decades-long armed campaign for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Turkish officials have said they targeted the bridges because they were used by PKK rebels.

Turkey views Kurdish northern Iraq with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, it fears the emergence of a wealthy Kurdish independent state that could fuel a separatist insurgency in its southeast.

On the other, increased trade with the region could help revive the southeastern economy and alleviate the poverty that has fed rebellion there for over 20 years.

Barzani called on Washington to do more to pressure Turkey into withdrawing its troops from northern Iraq.

“America carries great responsibility ... for preserving the stability of Iraq as a whole,” he said.

“For that reason America needs to take a firmer stance than it is now about the Turkish military operation.”

The United States wants NATO ally Turkey to end its offensive, now in its eighth day, as soon as possible. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Ankara he had been given no timetable for a withdrawal.

The United States is providing significant intelligence to Turkey for its operation against the PKK.

Turkey told Gates it would withdraw its troops from northern Iraq when the operation against the PKK guerrillas was completed.

Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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