KARS, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkish forces are stationed 30 km inside northern Iraq and could advance further to target Kurdish PKK militants in their Qandil Mountains stronghold, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.
Stepping up Turkish warnings about expanding its military presence in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, Yildirim 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 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in north Iraq are next in its sights, despite protests from the central government in Baghdad.
“Our forces have now been positioned some 30 km into northern Iraq, working to prevent infiltrations and terror activities there,” Yildirim 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 Erdogan 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.
Relations between the two countries have also been hit by a giant Turkish dam on the Tigris River which could exacerbate water shortages downstream in Iraq. Turkey said on Thursday it had stopped filling the dam at Baghdad’s request.