Turkish soldiers are stationed 30 kilometers inside northern Iraq and could advance further to target Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in their Qandil Mountains stronghold, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said, according to Reuters.
Stepping up Turkish warnings about expanding its military presence in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, Yıldırım told Reuters that Ankara would not hesitate to escalate an offensive against militants across its southern border.
The prospect of a major military operation comes less than three months after Turkish forces drove Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border region of Afrin. Turkey says that PKK bases in northern Iraq are next in its sights, despite protests from the central government in Baghdad.
“Our forces have now been positioned some 30 kilometers inside northern Iraq, working to prevent infiltration and terrorist activities there,” Yıldırım said in an interview on his plane as he campaigned for June 24 elections in eastern Turkey.
Accusing the PKK of carrying out “provocations and traps” and long-distance attacks, he said Turkey would “of course go further” if such actions continued. “We will show no hesitation here until these elements are neutralized,” he said.
“Every option [on Qandil] is on the table,” he added.
Turkey already carries out regular cross-border air strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq. On Friday, the military said warplanes had struck shelters and weapons stations in Qandil and other areas.
On Thursday night, President Tayyip Erdoğan said if Iraq did not clear the region of PKK militants, Turkey would strike Qandil and the Sinjar area further west where it says the PKK is also concentrated.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that Baghdad was ready to coordinate with Ankara to prevent cross-border attacks into Turkey, and said Turkish soldiers had been in northern Iraq since the 1980s.
But he called on Turkey to “respect Iraqi sovereignty” and accused Turkish politicians of raising tensions for domestic purposes.
“We will not accept an assault on Iraqi sovereignty even if it is a Turkish electoral campaign,” he said.
Yıldırım said a long term presence in Iraqi territory was a necessity for Turkey and did not violate its neighbor’s sovereignty. He said Turkey’s actions were in line with international laws and United Nations rulings.
“Sovereignty is one thing and a country’s life and material security is another thing. We have always taken care of Iraq’s territorial integrity,” he said.
In the last two years Turkey has also launched two military incursions in northern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which it says is an extension of the PKK — designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
That has strained ties with the United States, which has allied itself to a YPG-dominated force in Syria in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Last week the two NATO allies sought to overcome some of their differences by endorsing a roadmap for the withdrawal of YPG fighters from the Syrian town of Manbij.