ARBIL, Iraq (Combined Sources)–Turkish troops who crossed into the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq early on Tuesday have started withdrawing, said the office of Massud Barzani, president of Iraq’s northern Kurdish government.
"They have started to withdraw back into Turkish territory," a statement said.
The statement said around 500 Turkish soldiers entered northern Iraq and remained in remote areas along the Iraq-Turkey border.
"There were no clashes," the statement said, referring to some media reports that the Turkish soldiers had clashed briefly with the Peshmerga forces of Kurdish region.
Turkish troops had crossed into the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq overnight in the latest in a series of small-scale raids against Kurdish separatists over recent months, Iraqi and Turkish officials said on Tuesday.
A Turkish military official said the soldiers intervened when they spotted Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members across the border. There were no reports of any casualties from what he described as "a limited clash" with the Kurds.
"Two PKK groups were spotted just across the border and it was determined that they were planning attacks and a battalion of soldiers intervened," the military official said.
The government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said the Turkish troops withdrew after less than 24 hours.
Iraqi officials played down the incident, denying there had been clashes and saying the group of about 300 Turkish troops had entered an unpopulated area near the border.
"As we speak there is another limited incursion going on, but high up in the mountains in unpopulated areas. The Iraqi government and regional authorities are monitoring that as closely as possible," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said before reports emerged that the troops had withdrawn.
"We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraq’s interests and Turkish interests at the same time. But at the same time we fully understand the legitimate concern Turkey has over the PKK terrorist activities against them," he told a news conference with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The Turkish incursion into northern Iraq came two days after Ankara’s warplanes bombed several villages along the border targeting the rear-bases of the PKK.
Turkey says it has a right to use force to combat separatist rebels who shelter in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq but the United States and the European Union fear a further escalation in tensions could destabilize the region.
"Our army is doing whatever is necessary. Our security forces will continue to do whatever is necessary," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference.
Tension on the border has forced Washington to balance the interests of two of its close allies. Rice did not address the latest incursion directly, but said Washington supports Turkish concerns over the PKK while hoping to avoid destabilizing Iraq.
"The United States, Iraq and Turkey share a common interest in stopping the activities of the PKK, which threaten to undo the stability of the north," she said. "No one should do anything that threatens to destabilize the north."
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said details of the operation were not yet clear, but that the United States had "asked Turkey to keep the operations very targeted and limited in terms of their exercises".
Turkey’s center-right government and military are under public pressure to take action after a series of PKK attacks on Turkish security forces in recent months. Turkey blames Iraq for failing to rein in the PKK, and the United States for failing to apply pressure on Iraqi authorities.
Turkey has massed over a 100,000 troops on the border, and over the past several months has shelled and bombed Iraqi villages and launched occasional cross-border ground force raids. Iraq says air raids over the weekend killed at least one civilian.
Iraq’s Kurds expressed anger. The prime minister of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said its president, Masoud Barzani, had cancelled a planned trip to meet Rice in Baghdad in protest against U.S. tolerance for the Turkish incursion.
"We condemn this incursion. Turkey wants to transfer the problem onto the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan," said Fouad Hussein, head of Barzani’s office.
But Iraqi authorities did not seem to be alarmed: "I think this is a limited incursion and will not be expanded," said a senior Iraqi military official who asked not to be named.