Turkey’s Invasion of Iraq, 1997

May | June | September

14 May 1997. Turkish troops backed by tanks and artillery crossed the border into northern Iraq to crack down on Kurdish rebels, according to the Turkish foreign ministry. Private NTV television said some 50,000 soldiers and 250 tanks crossed the border at Habur before dawn. Turkish military officials refused to say how many troops were involved, but spokesman Col. Husnu Dag said "the figure is exaggerated. It is a small-scale, short-term operation." An Iraqi official condemned the attack, saying it contradicted "Turkey's pledge to respect Iraq's sovereignty and integrity," and called on Ankara to withdraw its forces immediately. The unidentified official, quoted by the state-run Iraqi News Agency, said Turkish troops had inflicted heavy damage in the border towns of Zakho and Imadiya. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermet Atacanli said the troops crossed into northern Iraq to aid an Iraqi Kurdish opposition group fighting the Turkish Kurdish rebels. The group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, controls the area along the Turkish border. "Our troops are assisting the KDP from the air and with artillery fire," Atacanli said. The Anatolia news agency said Turkish jets bombed at least five separate Turkish Kurdish rebel bases along the border inside Iraq. Thirty Kurdish rebels had been killed, meanwhile, in separate fighting along the border within Turkey, the regional governors' office said. But there was no mention as to when the offensives took place. The army had been massing troops and tanks along the Iraqi border in recent weeks, signaling an imminent incursion into northern Iraq against the guerrillas, who keep hideouts in the area. The army has also stepped up its fighting inside Turkey in recent weeks. Some 200 Kurdish rebels were killed over the past two weeks, according to the military. Turkey has launched major offensives in northern Iraq in recent springs to take advantage of good weather conditions in the mountainous terrain. (AP, 14 May 1997)

15 May 1997. Turkish troops pressed deeper inside northern Iraq on the second day of a cross-border offensive against the Kurdish camps. According to the Turkish Military, eighty-seven rebels and one soldier were killed. Turkish jets bombarded at least five rebel camps along the Iraqi-Turkish border and Kurds were fleeing toward the Iranian border. Armored personnel carriers, trucks equipped with heavy machine guns and oil tankers streamed across this border post to northern Iraq to back up the troops. Turkish media said as many as 50,000 soldiers were sent in. MED TV, a pro-Kurdish news station, said Turkish troops moved 18 miles into northern Iraq and were heading eastward. (AP, 15 May 1997)

17 May 1997. Turkey's cross-border offensive against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq has killed 902 Kurdish guerrillas in four days, according to the official Anatolia news agency. A spokesman for a Brussels-based, pro-Kurd television station disputed the casualty figures, although he would not say how many rebels had died. ``It's a huge lie. ... It is impossible to inflict such a great loss on guerrilla fighters,'' Irfan Dogan of MED-TV said. Anatolia said only 12 Turkish troops have died in the four-day-old offensive, but Dogan claimed the rebels had killed 40 Turkish soldiers. On Saturday, Turkish jets bombed six Kurdish rebel camps about nine miles inside Iraq, Anatolia said, and Turkey sent 30 more tanks across the border. (17 May 1997).

18 May 1997. Turkey pledged Sunday to keep troops in northern Iraq until separatist Kurds are no longer an effective fighting force, while an Iraqi Kurdish group said it had joined the battle against the rebels. As Turkey's offensive entered its fifth day, the military said 1,081 guerrillas had been killed since 25,000-50,000 Turkish troops, backed by tanks and war planes, streamed across the Iraqi border to dislodge the rebels, who stage cross-border attacks against Turkey. The offensive could jeopardize the shipment of food to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The border post at Habur, the only route for trucks carrying food to area, was closed to civilian traffic for the first two days of the fighting, which began Wednesday morning. Since Friday, only 20 percent of the regular flow of trucks has been allowed through. (AP, 18 May 1997)

19 May 1997. While Turkey's army moved against their bases in Iraq, Kurdish rebels retaliated on Monday by blocking a highway, ambushing motorists and attacking government buildings in Turkey's southeast. The overnight guerrilla raids killed one person and injured seven -- all passengers aboard a bus that the rebels raked with automatic weapon fire, the Anatolia news agency said. The guerrillas briefly blocked a main road linking Diyarbakir to the Iraqi border, burning two oil tankers before they disappeared into the darkness, local journalists said. Sixty miles to the south of Diyarbakir, the rebels fired rockets at government buildings in the town of Derik, causing damage but no injuries. (AP, 19 May 1997)

20 May 1997. Turkish troops hunting down Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains of northern Iraq killed 150 rebels today, bringing the rebel death toll in the week long offensive to 1,300, the Anatolia news agency said. The high casualty toll appear to have stung the Kurdish separatists. Rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan told pro-Kurdish MED-TV that his group was ready for a unilateral cease-fire and wanted to start talks with the Turkish government, according to the text of an interview seen today by The Associated Press. Turkey previously has rejected such offers. The official casualty figure for soldiers stands at 14, but the Brussels-based MED TV says 64 troops have died. The differing casualty figures could not be reconciled. Journalists have been barred from the area. (AP, 20 May 1997)

20 May 1997. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan today condemned the Turkish military offensive and called for international pressure on Turkey to withdraw its troops. "Iraqi territorial integrity has to be respected," he told reporters in Vienna, Austria. This is the fourth straight spring that Turkey has sent troops into Iraq to attack the Kurdish rebels. Anatolia said the Kurds were fleeing toward the Iranian border to escape the Turkish troops. The army sent 5,000 more troops into northern Iraq on Monday to stop the rebels from infiltrating into Iran, the Radikal daily said today. The fiercest clashes were reportedly taking place in Iraq across from the Turkish border town of Cukurca, newspapers said. MED TV reported that Turkish troops have reached Dohuk, an Iraqi city 30 miles south of the Turkish border. Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships have been pounding at least nine rebel bases 10 miles inside Iraq. (AP, 20 May 1997).

U.S. State Dept. reaction to Turkish Invasion of Iraq (21 May 1997). The following exchange is taken verbatim from the State Department Briefing on 21 May, 1997. Click here to see the full transcipt of the 21 May State Department Briefing.

QUESTION: Anything on the continuing Turkish invasion and occupation of Northern Iraq against the Kurdish people? Ankara is deploying more troops and weapons inside the Iraqi territory, and I am wondering what's happened to the territorial integrity of Iraq?

MR. BURNS: Well, many questions in there. I have nothing much to say on the incursion except to say that Prime Minister Erbakan and Foreign Minister Ciller have assured us that this will be short, brief, in both time and in scope. Second, that the incursion is against the PKK, not against the Kurdish people, against a terrorist organization that has killed innocent Turks in southeastern Turkey. Third, the United States, ever since the end of the Gulf War in March 1991, has supported the territorial integrity of Iraq. We still do. Saddam Hussein just gave up the right to be responsible for the northern and southern thirds of his country because of his aggression during the war.

QUESTION: I just have a follow-up. There was a death toll reported as of a couple of days ago from that operation in the many hundreds. Are you confident that those were all combatants? Do you have any kind of breakdown on this?

MR. BURNS: No, we cannot be confident of that because we are not there. We don't have American officials there. We have to rely on the Turkish Government and also anyone who is an independent observer. There are probably very few in Northern Iraq. So I cannot account for the figures, and I certainly can't exclude the possibility, unfortunately, that civilians may have been killed.

QUESTION: So you rely on the Turkish Government statements and assurances?

MR. BURNS: Turkey is an ally of the United States. We trust the Turkish Government.

QUESTION: Nick, what do you understand from the shortened time in limit and scope?

MR. BURNS: It's I don't believe we have ever quantified it, but there have been a number of Turkish incursions into Northern Iraq for many years. They have always been limited to a couple of days or a couple of weeks. They have never been six to eight-month occupations. The Turkish Government has been clear. It does not seek to occupy Northern Iraq. It seeks to destroy the base of a terrorist organization that threatens Turkey -- particularly, the civilian population in the southeast. We believe that Turkey has a right to defend itself against terrorism. We also believe that this incursion should be short, brief in time, as well as scope.

21 May 1997. Turkish troops seized a strategic valley and moved deeper inside northern Iraq Wednesday, the eighth day of a cross-border offensive to crack down on Kurdish rebels, reports said. "Our troops seized total control of Zap valley, used by the rebels as a headquarters," the official Anatolia news agency quoted a general staff statement as saying Wednesday. The valley lies in the Amadiyah area, just across the Turkish border town of Cukurca, but reports said the troops moved deeper inside Wednesday. "I saw Turkish troops near Zawita town," Dolan Abdullah, an Iraqi Kurd said as he entered Turkey at this border crossing. Zawita is nine miles east of Dohuk city, which lies 30 miles southeast of here. The Iraqi Broadcasting Corp., run by an Iraqi opposition group, said Wednesday that some troops were camped in Atroush, a town 34 miles northeast of Dohuk while others went to Sarsang, a town 25 miles north of Dohuk. It said Turkey poured more troops and armored personnel carriers into northern Iraq Tuesday.

23 May 1997. The Anatolia news agency said Friday that Turkish troops have taken another Kurdish rebel stronghold in northern Iraq. It said they drove guerrilla fighters from the mountains in the Amadiyah region as Turkey's largest cross-border offensive, its largest to date, went into its 10th day. The town of Al Amadiyah is 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Turkish border. The surrounding mountains have long provided the rebels with safe haven. The rebels denied the reports, saying fierce clashes continue in the region, according to the Kurdish DEM news agency, based in Germany.

26 May 1997. The taking the Zap Camp, which was reported to be the base for more than 1,000 guerrillas, was one of the main objectives of the Turkish incursion, according to gendarmerie Lt. Gen. Altay Tokat, commander of regional forces. Tokat said fighter jets and Super Cobra helicopters bombed the heavily fortified camp, and then mountain commandos moved into the area and engaged guerrillas during a fierce 48-hour fire fight. The toll for the Zap Camp battle, according to Soybas, was 600 dead from the Kurdish Workers' Party, 5 captured and 1 wounded. The numbers are typical for Turkish anti-rebel offensives, in which very few rebels are taken alive. The Turkish forces lost 20 men, Soybas said, at least 10 of them to land mines. The rest of the guerrillas based here are believed to have fled to mountain areas south of Zap, he said. Officers were reluctant to say how long the operation in northern Iraq will last, but some newspapers have quoted military sources as saying Turkish troops may stay as long as August. The incursion reportedly involves more than 50,000 troops. As of the weekend, military officials said 1,445 of the 4,000 guerrillas believed to be based in northern Iraq have been killed, 184 wounded and 121 captured since the operation began. The official death toll for Turkish forces is 15, although the number is believed by some observers to be higher and conflicts with Soybas's death toll for the battle of Zap. The Kurdish Workers' Party has said that only 27 rebels have been killed. "The operation will continue until all [Kurdish Workers' Party] terrorist groups in the area have been rendered ineffective and the forces of Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party have assumed control in the region," a senior military official said Saturday, quoting from a government declaration. The Turkish troops have enlisted the help of Barzani's Iraqi Kurdish faction, which controls the region, in the offensive. (Washington Post, 26 May 1997).

27 May 1997. Hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Turkish Embassy today, protesting a two-week Turkish military sweep into northern Iraq that so far has killed 1,800 Kurdish rebels. "Turkey is against the Arabs ... close their embassy!" chanted some of the 600 protesters. "Down, down with Turkey and Israel!" others shouted. Some protesters said Iraq should drive Turkish troops out by force, while others called for a boycott of Turkish goods. Several hundred other demonstrators marched to the U.N. offices to protest what they consider to be the world body's inaction. Turkey's military says over 1,800 rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party have been killed in this military offensive. It has not given casualty figures for its soldiers. (AP, 27 May 1997).

Turkey vows to continue attacks in Iraq . (11 June 1997) Turkey vowed to continue attacks into Iraq until "as long as it takes to wipe out the rebels." According to the Turkey's military spokesman, 2,250 kurds and 95 Turkish troops have died. However, according to the PKK, they have killed 791 Turkish troops. Turkey will not allow independent conformation of its these totals. Turkey has also accused Syria, Iran and other countries of arming the PKK with missiles that have bought down two Turkish helicopters. Greece, Armenia, and Iran have denied these allegations. (Washington Post, 11 June 1997) Click here to see the full Washington Post story.

U.S. State Department queried on impact of Turkish invasion (12 June 1997).The following exchange is taken verbatim from the State Department Briefing on June 12, 1997. Click here to see the full transcipt of the 12 June State Department Briefing.

QUESTION: Turkey. The Turkish operation in the north of Iraq, now we have papers, headlines this morning hitting us that troops will stay in Iraq to fight troubles. Now, we have been hearing from the State Department that this operation is - as they understand it - is for a limited period. However, the officials, now they are saying, we are staying there. Iraq is a sovereign state and there are lot of worries between the neighbors of Turkey, like Iran and Syria, about what the Turkish are doing in the Northern Iraq.

MR. BURNS: It's probably not the best argument that Iran and Syria are concerned. But let me just say that first of all, you are correct in saying, obviously, Talal, that Iraq is a sovereign country. The United States does not wish to see Iraq dismembered. We do support the territorial integrity of Iraq and have since the end of the Gulf War. We have not changed our view on that.

We have said that the Turkish Government has told us that this operation will be limited in scope and time. The Turks have, we believe, reason to be concerned about the actions of the PKK and the threat that the PKK poses to Southeastern Turkey. We accept that. Turkey's an ally, and we have no reason to question the need for an incursion across the border. This has become an annual exercise in Turkey's fight against the terrorist organization. If you look at past incursions, this one is not longer than past incursions. In 1995, the incursion, I think, lasted several months, many months.

I don't know how long this one will last, but we have been assured it will be limited in scope and duration. There is a job to be done. Once that job is finished, I'm sure that the Turkish military will go back across the border into Southeastern Turkey.

QUESTION: With all due respect, I think you should be worried when Syria is talking reproachment with Iraq, and opening of borders and selling delegation of trade to Iraq, because of the Turkish incursion.

MR. BURNS: There can be no excuse of the UN embargoes on Iraq. All of us in the Gulf War Coalition are still together in the belief that Iraq ought to be quarantined and contained, which it is, by the no-flight zones in the South and North, and by the economic embargoes. That should continue, because Iraq is outside the - Iraq is not a normal country. It doesn't operate as a normal country. It is a perfidious government.

QUESTION: Syria opened their borders with Iraq.

MR. BURNS: Excuse me?

QUESTION: Syria has opened its borders with Iraq.

MR. BURNS: Well, we don't make decisions for the Syrian Government. We don't approve or like everything the Syrian Government does. Yes.

QUESTION: Turkish military intelligence, yesterday they had a big press conference. They put to some detail and some proof which Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran is exporting Islamic fundamentalism to Turkey. And also Iran and Syria is giving other than the safe haven they're providing some materials for the weapons for the PKK terrorists. Do you have any comment on the subject?

MR. BURNS: I can't comment because I haven't seen that particular report, and I just don't have the facts at my disposal to corroborate or take issue with that report.

State Dept. queried on how long Turkey will be in Iraq (13 June 1997). The following is taken verbatim from the State Dept. briefing on 13 June 1997. Click here to see the full transcipt of the 13 June State Department Briefing.

QUESTION: Also on Turkey, I guess it was last month when the Turkish troops entered northern Iraq, you showed an understanding point of view, in view of the fact that it was going to be limited in time and scope. It now appears that they are going to be there on a semi-permanent, if not permanent, basis. Have you changed your view of their incursion?

MR. BURNS: Jim, I would not agree with the premise of the question that they will be there permanently. The Turks have not said that. In fact, what the Turks have said very clearly to us, privately as well as in their public statements, that this is a limited incursion --limited in both time and in what they are trying to accomplish. They are trying to root out elements of the PKK which represent a mortal threat to Southeastern Turkey and to the safety of civilians throughout Turkey, as well as in the southeastern part of the country.

If you look at prior incursions -- and these have become almost an annual affair -- this particular one is not as long, so far, not nearly as long as the incursion in 1995 -- in the Spring and Summer of 1995, which went on for many, many months. So we do expect that the commitments that have been made to us and to others, that this incursion will be limited, we do expect that to be maintained and met. In the meantime, we do hope that the efforts by Turkey to fight terrorism will succeed, because all of us must stand against terrorists.

QUESTION: Well, when it began, did you expect the Turkish troops to be in Northern Iraq this long?

MR. BURNS: We did not know. The Turks did not tell us. I don't think they knew in their own minds how long it would be necessary to carry out the mission that has been set for the Turkish army. I think that is probably the most pertinent thing I can tell you -- that the amount of time the Turks are likely to stay is probably a direct function of the mission and the success of that mission.

We do believe that this should not be permanent, it should be limited; and we have been told that. I would like to just reaffirm once again, as I did yesterday, that the United States fully supports the territorial integrity of Iraq. We have never wavered on that point since March of 1991 when Iraq was soundly defeated by the Gulf War Coalition. We do not believe that any kind of mini-state should be created in Iraq. We do not believe that Iraq should be dismembered. That is not in the long-term interests of the Iraqi people. But it's certainly within the rights of the Turkish people to expect that terrorists that plague Turkey and threaten Turkey can be dealt with on this type of limited incursion.

QUESTION: You have reiterated that you have been told more than once by the Turkish authority. Now, I wonder who told you this because the Prime Minister Erbakan said last weekend that it had finished. The operation has achieved this and they were withdrawing.

MR. BURNS: Well, that's not the case.

QUESTION: And then the General Cevik Bir announced, no, we haven't finished. So, there is conflict within the Turkish hierarchy. And who told you? And how can we rely, I mean, on your word?

MR. BURNS: First of all, it is a good question. I cannot account for any kind of discrepancies in public statements in the Turkish Government. You will have to address that to the Turkish Government, itself. We have been told by military officials on the Turkish general staff, as well as by civilian officials in the foreign ministry, in the Presidency, that this will be limited in scope and duration. I think those are credible sources, are reliable sources. We rely on those commitments that this will be limited and not permanent, not permanent.

24 September 1997. A Reuters' wire story reported that more than 100 Turkish tanks and military vehicles had recently entered northern Iraq. Witnesses from the region said that several military convoys had crossed the border from Turkey into the town of Zakho during the past four days. Turkey pledged at the end of June that it had withdrawn most of its forces from the region, but officials in Baghdad said last month that Turkish forces were still active against the PKK in northern Iraq.

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