Trying to head off a Turkish attack in northern Iraq, President Bush on Monday told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States will share military intelligence in the hunt for Kurdish terrorists.
The assurance seemed to satisfy Erdogan, who said later: “I’m happy.”
The meeting of the leaders was viewed as pivotal in influencing the next move by Turkey, which is weighing a military strike against terrorist forces in Iraq.
With thousands of Turkish troops massed on the border of his country, Erdogan maintained that Turkey has the authority to mount a cross-border incursion. He said nothing to indicate his intentions or remove that option from consideration.
But in an Oval Office session, Bush seemed to successfully convey that the U.S. is committed to combatting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The separatist group in Iraq, deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S., is responsible for killing more than 40 Turks in the past month in cross-border raids.
“As I leave your country, I see that we agree to a great extent,” Erdogan said in a speech at the National Press Club, recapping his visit with Bush. “I suppose you don’t expect me to tell you everything we’ve spoken about. But I’m happy.”
Bush seeks diplomatic solutionThe White House has lobbied for a diplomatic solution between Turkey and Iraq. The fear is that a Turkish incursion into Iraq could bring instability to what has been the calmest part of Iraq and could set a precedent for other countries, such as Iran, that have conflicts with Kurdish rebels.
Erdogan came looking for a specific pledge of action, not more talk. He is under great pressure at home to respond to the attacks against his people.
Bush extended two offers of help, albeit broad ones.
Bush said his government would offer solid, real-time intelligence to track “people who are using murder as a weapon to achieve political objectives.” He also said the militaries of the two countries would begin to stay in constant contact, as coordinated by top commanders.
“The PKK is an enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq, and the United States of America,” Bush said. “And it’s in our joint interest to work effectively to deal with the problem.”
It is widely thought that the bulk of the PKK forces — which traditionally halt operations in the winter because of supply and logistical difficulties — have scattered as far as southern Iraq, as well as melting into the populations of large cities in the north.
“I’ve assured the prime minister that we’re working very carefully and closely with the people in the Kurdish part of Iraq to help deal with the movement of these people, to help locate and find and stop the leadership of the PKK from continuing doing what they’re doing,” Bush said.
When asked how he would react to a Turkish operation in Iraq, Bush dismissed the question as hypothetical.
Turkey emphasizes cooperationErdogan said his government has a “mandate” if necessary for an incursion against the PKK, not civilians.
But, like Bush, he emphasized cooperation with the United States.
“We believe that it is very important for us to work jointly on a diplomatic, political and military level,” he said.
The meeting came a day after the PKK released eight soldiers it had been holding for two weeks since their capture in an ambush inside Turkey along the Iraqi border. Bush noted that Erdogan’s government had consulted the U.S. about getting the soldiers released.
“There is at least one effective measure for people in Turkey to see, that when we work together, we can accomplish important objectives,” Bush said.
The PKK has fought for autonomy for Turkish Kurds since 1984. Turkey has complained for years that the United States has not done enough to end PKK activity in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north. The issue has enraged Turks and moved public opinion in that country against the United States.
The intensity of Turkey’s demands about the PKK has risen as hit-and-run raids by the rebels and other fighting have left dozens of soldiers and civilians dead in recent months. The skirmishes were the latest in a conflict that has seen nearly 40,000 people killed.