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Turkish military chief seeks OK to enter Iraq

Effort to battle Kurdish rebels a worry for US

ISTANBUL -- The Turkish military's powerful chief declared yesterday that his army should be given the go-ahead for a cross-border offensive into northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish rebels using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.

The United States has strongly warned Turkey against such an incursion, saying it could destabilize the entire region.

Any strike across the border could leave the American military in a difficult position if this fellow member of NATO ends up battling Iraqi Kurds, who are key US allies.

But several Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they feared that in this election year, the Turkish government would succumb to popular sentiment and authorize some kind of military push.

In an unusual public assertion, General Yasar Buyukanit said Kurdish rebels who take shelter in the autonomous zone controlled by Kurds in northern Iraq posed an unacceptable danger to Turkey and the army should be allowed to go in after them.

"There is a need for a military operation against the terrorist organization . . . in the north of Iraq," the general told journalists during a televised interview in the capital, Ankara. "Should it be done militarily? Yes, it should . . . . Would it be useful? Yes, it would."

By law, the parliament must give its approval to military operations outside Turkish territory. The army chief's call puts heavy pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to seek such authorization from lawmakers.

A full-blown Turkish military operation in northern Iraq is still considered unlikely by most analysts, but Buyukanit's comments were the latest sign that smaller-scale activity against rebel sanctuaries is increasingly likely -- perhaps in the form of airstrikes or commando raids.

Turkey has complained to the Iraqi government about what it says has been a failure to rein in rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party. The United States and Turkey consider the group a terrorist organization.

Turkey says nearly 4,000 Kurdish militants are believed to be based in northern Iraq, with about half that number operating mainly inside Turkey.

The last major Turkish push into Iraq was nearly 15 years ago. But it did little to quell the Kurdish rebellion.

More than 37,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in earnest in the mid-1980s.