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Turks offer Gates no timetable on Iraq incursion

February 29, 2008|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

ANKARA, TURKEY — Civilian and military leaders here assured U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday that Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq would be limited to redoubts occupied by Kurdish separatists but offered no guarantees on how soon their troops would withdraw.

In meetings with the Turkish officials, Gates pushed, he said, for the operation to be wrapped up as quickly as possible and for the Turks to more clearly explain to the Iraqi government the size and scope of the offensive.

The Turkish military, which has long battled Kurdish separatists who strike at Turkey from bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, launched the large-scale ground operation last week backed by artillery and warplanes. The fighting has angered Washington's Iraqi allies and raised concern that the conflict could spread in a relatively stable area of Iraq.

Gates previously had urged that the operation end after a week or two. But he told reporters traveling with him back to Washington that the Turks had given no timetable for their withdrawal.

"In the sessions that we had there was no specific mention of a date," he said.

"I think they got our message though."

In a news conference with Gates, however, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul appeared to signal a longer time frame than the Bush administration had hoped for.

Gonul noted that Turkish soldiers were operating in difficult winter conditions, and he said the offensive would continue "as long as is necessary" to destroy the infrastructure of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Gonul said Turkish troops were avoiding civilian areas and attacking only known bases of PKK fighters.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said all Turkish officials with whom Gates met, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, repeated that message.

The U.S. has declared the PKK a terrorist organization and pressed the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq to more aggressively pursue the fighters. Gonul also thanked the U.S. for "opening Iraqi airspace" to Turkey.

But the Baghdad government and Kurdish regional authorities have condemned the Turkish offensive, saying it violates Iraqi sovereignty.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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