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Turk PM asserts right to intervene in Iraq, raps US

By Reuters

01/12/07 -- (
Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Friday reaffirmed Turkey's right to send troops into Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels there and chided U.S. officials for questioning it.

"The Turkish Republic will do whatever is necessary to combat the terrorists when the time comes, but it will not announce its plans in advance," Erdogan told a news conference after a meeting of his ruling AK Party.

"We say we are ready to take concrete steps with the Iraqi government and we also say these steps must be taken now."

In sharp language underscoring Turkish anxiety about the chaos in Iraq, Erdogan said it was wrong for Washington -- "our supposed strategic ally" -- to tell Turkey, with its historic and cultural ties in the region, to stay out of Iraq.

"We have a 350 km border with Iraq. We have historic relations ... the United States is 10,000 km away from Iraq, and yet is it not intervening in Iraq's internal affairs?" he said.

Turkish media say Erdogan has been irked by comments attributed to Washington's envoy to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, warning third countries not to interfere in Iraqi affairs.

Ankara has long complained that the United States and Iraqi government have failed to crack down on Kurdish rebels, and periodically asserts its right under international law to conduct cross-border operations against the guerrillas.

With both presidential and parliamentary elections looming in 2007, analysts say Erdogan is under increased pressure to show he is tough on security issues.

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), branded a "terrorist organisation" by the EU and the U.S. as well as Ankara, launched an armed struggle for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.

The PKK began a unilateral ceasefire on Oct. 1 at the request of its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, but Turkey dismissed the move as a public relations ploy and clashes have continued, though at a lower intensity than before.

Up to 5,000 militants are believed to be hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq from where they have staged attacks on military and civilian targets inside Turkey.

Washington has appointed a special envoy to coordinate measures with Turkey aimed at tackling the PKK, but analysts say it will not apply military force against the group, given the scale of the problems it faces in the rest of Iraq.

"We don't want to waste time with abstract statements, we want concrete results," said Erdogan, who has said the Iraq situation is now a bigger foreign policy priority for Turkey even than its bid to join the European Union.

Ankara's biggest nightmare is a violent breakup of Iraq and the emergence of a Kurdish state in the north that could in turn foment separatism among Turkey's own Kurds.

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