Turkey Sends Ground Troops Into Iraq

KIRKUK, Iraq -- The Turkish army sent soldiers about three kilometers into northern Iraq in an overnight operation on Tuesday, Kurdish officials said.

A Turkish official said the troops, seeking Kurdish rebels, were still in Iraq by midmorning.

Meanwhile in Kirkuk, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to the city that Iraq's Kurds call their Jerusalem, an oil-rich territory claimed by many.

Rice was meeting members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit based in Kirkuk and provincial politicians. She was to meet Iraq's central leadership later in Baghdad.

The Turkish forces crossed into an area near the border with Iran, about 120 kilometers north of the city of Irbil, said Jabar Yawar, a spokesman for Kurdistan's Peshmerga security forces.

About 300 Turkish troops crossed the border at 3 a.m., said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the regional Kurdistan government. He said the region was a deserted mountainous frontier area.

The Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for autonomy for southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.

It was not clear how long the Turkish soldiers who entered Iraq on Tuesday would stay, but a Turkish government official with knowledge about the operation said they were sent as "reinforcements" to existing Turkish troops stationed further inside Iraq.

"They are going there as reinforcements, they are not returning," the official said on condition of anonymity. About 1,200 Turkish military monitors have operated in northern Iraq since 1996 with permission from local authorities. A tank battalion has been stationed at a former airport at the border town of Bamerni and a few other military outposts were scattered in the region. Ankara rotates the troops there.

Asked about a reported clash between the Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels inside Iraq, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said, "From now on, whatever is necessary in the struggle against terrorism, it is being done."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the incursion "is not acceptable and will lead to complicated problems."

"Iraq understands the threat the PKK represents, one that endangers Turkish security. But Iraq rejects any Turkish interference in Iraq."

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, criticized the operation.

"We are against any Turkish incursion inside Iraqi territory. This is regarded as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty," Abdullah said. "We don't expect that problems between Turkey and the PKK rebels will be solved by a military operation."

He cautioned that Turkish forces should "be careful not to harm civilians" who might be living in the area.

"If the Turkish military conducts limited operations against the rebels, this is a problem of their concern," he said. "But if this ... leads to harm for civilians, we will absolutely be against that and reject that."

Washington is trying to balance support for two key allies: the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurds. Despite their apparent support for a limited raid, the United States remains firmly opposed to a major Turkish military operation into northern Iraq -- which could disrupt one of the calmest areas of Iraq and destabilize the region.