ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey pulled its troops out of northern Iraq on Friday, ending a major offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels that Washington feared could spread conflict through the region.
A statement by Turkey’s armed forces General Staff denied any foreign influence on the decision, which came a day after President George W. Bush urged a swift end to the offensive.
"There was no question of completely liquidating the terrorist organization, but Turkey has shown the organization that northern Iraq is not a safe haven for them," the General Staff said.
Turkey sent thousands of soldiers into mountainous northern Iraq on February 21 to crush rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who use the region as a base for attacks on Turkish territory.
"It was determined that the aims set at the start of the operation had been achieved," the General Staff said in its statement. "Our units returned to their bases (in Turkey) on the morning of February 29."
Announcing the withdrawal ahead of the General Staff, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari welcomed the decision to leave.
But Turkey’s Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin, quoted by TV networks, said Ankara reserved the right to send troops again into Iraq if needed. A parliamentary mandate allowing the army to stage cross-border operations only expires in October.
Washington, like Ankara and the EU, bran’s the PKK a terrorist organization, and has been supplying intelligence to the Turkish military on the PKK in Iraq.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a brief trip to Ankara on Thursday, urged a short, carefully targeted campaign.
Turkey’s military said it had killed 240 rebels and suffered the loss of 27 soldiers during the eight-day offensive, waged in deep snow and subzero temperatures in tough mountainous terrain.
The PKK said it killed more than 130 Turkish troops but only five rebels had died. It was not possible to verify the figures.
Turkey had said the ground operation, backed by warplanes, tanks, long-range artillery and attack helicopters, would continue until the PKK no longer posed a threat to Turkey.
The withdrawal without apparently rooting out all PKK bases, especially in the Qandil mountains, will raise questions about how seriously weakened the rebel movement has been.
Retired Turkish general Edip Baser told NTV he believed the military had achieved its goals in Iraq.
"The army damaged the infrastructure in such a way that the PKK cannot rebuild it. It was of course not possible to eradicate the PKK in such a short time," Baser said.
Adding to the impression of a decision taken in some haste, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s office had to change the text of a planned address by the premier to the nation scheduled for Friday evening to take into account the withdrawal of troops.
His office had earlier circulated to media an embargoed copy of the speech which spoke of continuing military operations.
Turkish leaders have been under domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3,000 PKK members who stage deadly cross-border attacks against Turkish targets.
The PKK in northern Iraq claimed victory over Turkey.
"Because of the fierce battles between the PKK and the Turkish forces, the Turkish forces have withdrawn," said Ahmed Danees, the PKK’s foreign relations spokesman in northern Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds, long suspicious of neighboring Turkey, fear it is seeking to undermine the autonomy of Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdistan region. Ankara says it wants only to end terrorism.
"The withdrawal of Turkish troops is a positive development towards improving relations in the region. We hope this withdrawal is in earnest. War serves no one," said Mohammed Ihsan, a Kurdish regional minister.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people since the group first took up arms in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey.
A senior Turkish military source said earlier this week that around 10,000 troops had been involved in the operation in Iraq, which mainly centered on the Zap valley.