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Turkish army pushes Iraq incursion, calls for truly secular president

by Sibel Utku Bila1 hour, 20 minutes ago

Turkey's army chief called Thursday for a military incursion into neighbouring northern Iraq to hunt down Turkish Kurd rebels based there, despite US objections.

In a rare press conference at the army headquarters, the first in almost two years, General Yasar Buyukanit also said Turkey's next president, to be elected in May, should be committed to secularism "in earnest".

Buyukanit's call for a cross-border operation was the latest effort to ratchet up the pressure on Iraqi Kurds, who run northern Iraq, over the presence of Turkish Kurd rebels there.

"If you ask me whether a cross-border operation is needed, yes it is needed," said Buyukanit, though he added that it would require parliamentary authorisation.

"If the armed forces are given this mission, they are strong enough to carry out such operations," he said.

Turkey has accused Iraqi Kurds of tolerating, and even backing the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody campaign for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey's southeast since 1984. The conflict has claimed some 37,000 lives.

Ankara says thousands of militants of the PKK enjoy unrestricted movement in northern Iraq and are able to obtain weapons and explosives there.

The group is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community.

Wary of turmoil in one of Iraq's sole relatively calm areas, Washington has warned its NATO ally against a cross-border operation and pledged to curb the PKK through non-military means.

Responding to Buyukanit's comments on Thursday, a US State Department spokesman urged Turkey to refrain from launching raids in Iraq, although he agreed the rebels "need to be dealt with."

"Certainly that's an option that everybody should work to avoid," spokesman Sean McCormack said of a military operation.

He said Turkey and the leadership of the Kurdish autonomous area of northern Iraq should pursue US-brokered negotiations.

Buyukanit said the Iraqi Kurdish region, led by Massud Barzani, had become a "protection zone" for the PKK and could be slipping out of Baghdad's control.

Turkey on Monday handed a stern diplomatic note to Iraq, demanding "urgent" measures against the rebels.

Buyukanit also struck a political note in long-anticipated comments on the army's position on who should be Turkey's next president.

"We want to underline our hope that parliament will elect a president who adheres in earnest, and not just in words, to the basic principles of the republic and the ideal of a secular, democratic state," he said.

He declined to answer further questions on the elections, in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist, is widely expected to run.

The military, the self-appointed guardians of Turkey's secular system, is mistrustful of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The AKP is the offshoot of a now-banned Islamist party which the army forced from power in 1997.

Even though Erdogan has disowned his past and now describes himself as a "conservative democrat," the secularist elite suspects he still has Islamist ambitions.

The president is elected for a seven-year term by parliament, where the AKP holds a two-thirds majority that will allow it to easily elect the candidate of its choice.

The AKP says it will announce its candidate after parliament begins to collect candidacy applications on April 16.

Erdogan's purported intention to run for the presidency has raised tensions in Ankara amid harsh objections by secularists that the AKP wants to seize the "last stronghold" of secularism.

Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, has often clashed with the government.

He blocked the appointment of officials he saw as AKP's Islamist cronies and returned to parliament laws he considered breached the country's constitutionally protected commitment to secularism.

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