GORUMLU, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey sent more tanks to its border with Iraq on Wednesday in a military build-up that is fuelling U.S. concern about a possible incursion into northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels.
A group of 20 tanks loaded on trucks emerged from army barracks in Mardin near Syria and headed towards the Iraqi border in southeast Turkey, already the scene of a major army offensive against rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Speculation about an imminent incursion into Iraq has grown since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last week he saw eye to eye with the army over possible military action, despite unease in the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, about such a move.
There was also anxiety along the border in southeast Turkey, where many Kurdish villagers form part of a state-backed militia which fights alongside the army against the PKK rebels.
“We support the operations in the mountains here because the PKK made us suffer a lot. I lost 10 people from my family,” said Nadir Karadeniz, an official in the village of Gorumlu, located near a military base just a few kilometers from the border.
But there was reluctance to take the fight into the Iraqi mountains, where thousands of PKK fighters are based, given the strong opposition from Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani -- a respected figure among Turkey’s own Kurds.
“I don’t think it would be good to go into northern Iraq because Barzani said he would not accept Turkish soldiers there,” Karadeniz said, before a military jeep arrived in the village and told journalists to leave the area.
Military operations are focused on the rebels already inside Turkish territory. Security forces killed 10 PKK fighters in clashes across the southeast on Tuesday.
The United States has repeatedly urged Turkey not to send troops into Iraq because it says it will only complicate the situation. The two countries have agreed various measures, including financial ones, to try to curb the PKK.
Local concerns are focused on the impact of an incursion, which would hurt relations between Turks and Kurds, and also on the economy of the impoverished region, closely linked with northern Iraq in trade terms as well as ethnically.
“This (operation) would mean great suffering, great losses and a blow to the harmony between Turks and Kurds,” said Muhsun Kunur, mayor of the town of Silopi, around 15 km from the official border gate to Iraq.
The prospect of an operation has also stirred tensions between Turkey and the United States.
On Tuesday, Turkey formally asked Washington to avoid any further violation of its air space after two U.S. F-16 warplanes briefly flew into Turkish air space near the Iraqi border.
U.S. diplomats said the incident was an “accident” but Turkish media said it was intended to send a message to Ankara not to send its troops into Iraq.
But pressure within Turkey for an incursion is growing after a suicide bombing in the capital Ankara last week killed six people and injured scores more. Authorities blamed the attack on the PKK, which denied any involvement.
A day later, six soldiers were killed when their vehicle was blown up by a landmine believed to have been planted by the rebels. On Wednesday, another soldier was killed after treading on a PKK landmine in Hakkari province near the Iraqi border.
Erdogan feels the need to act tough ahead of national polls due in July. On Tuesday, he reiterated his frustration over the failure of U.S. and Iraqi government forces to crush the PKK rebels in Iraq despite Ankara’s regular appeals for action.
More than 30,000 people have died in the conflict with the PKK since the group launched its insurgency in 1984.
Against this backdrop and given the military build-up, locals in Silopi see an operation as increasingly likely.
“We see a 90 percent chance of them crossing over. They are now stationed on the border,” said hairdresser Sadik Pusat, 32.
“If the military goes into northern Iraq we will have to leave our lives here and migrate to the West.”