ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey pulled its troops out of northern Iraq on Friday, ending a major offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels that Washington had feared might destabilise the wider region.
The withdrawal came a day after U.S President George W. Bush urged a swift end to the offensive. Turkey’s armed forces General Staff denied any foreign influence on the decision.
“There was no question of completely liquidating the terrorist organisation, but Turkey has shown the organisation that northern Iraq is not a safe haven for them,” the General Staff said in a statement.
Turkey, which has NATO’s second biggest army, sent thousands of soldiers into mountainous northern Iraq on February 21 to crush rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who use the region as a base for attacks on Turkish territory.
The General Staff said it had killed 240 rebels and lost 27 soldiers during the eight-day offensive, waged in deep snow and subzero temperatures in tough mountainous terrain.
The PKK, which says it killed more than 130 Turkish troops but only five rebels had died, described the withdrawal as a victory. It was not possible to verify the figures.
“It was determined that the aims set at the start of the operation had been achieved... Our units returned to their bases (in Turkey) on the morning of February 29,” the statement said.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan praised the operation.
“This offensive has struck an important blow against the terrorist organisation at an unexpected time,” he said, alluding to the fact that the army had acted before the end of winter.
Iraq and the United States both welcomed the withdrawal.
“It must be recognised that military power alone will not resolve this conflict,” Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barhan Salih, a Kurd, told Reuters.
“The time has come to engage all political and diplomatic initiatives to pursue a resolution to the underlying causes for this conflict,” he said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said: “I think its a good thing to have this military operation wrapping up.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a brief trip to Ankara on Thursday, had urged a short, well targeted campaign.
Washington, like Ankara and the EU, brands the PKK a terrorist organisation, and has been supplying intelligence to the Turkish military on PKK activities in northern Iraq.
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.
The PKK in Iraq claimed victory over Turkey on Friday.
“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.
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.
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.
Turkish leaders have been under domestic pressure to crack down on the estimated 3,000 PKK fighters who stage deadly cross-border attacks on Turkish civilian and military targets.
Iraqi Kurds fear it is seeking to undermine the autonomy of Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdistan region but they also enjoy increasingly strong trade ties with their large neighbour.
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.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Baghdad and Selcuk Gokoluk in Ankara; Editing by Sami Aboudi