Turkey’s army has boosted troop levels in the restive southeast to more than 200,000, most of them stationed along the border with Iraq, security sources told Reuters on Friday.Those sources, who declined to be named, said the unusually large buildup, which includes tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft, was part of a security crackdown on Kurdish rebels hiding in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the estimate of 200,000 troops, saying it was too high.
“I have not seen anything that would indicate there are numbers of Turkey’s soldiers along the border of that size,” Gates told reporters in Washington.
The Pentagon has disputed reports of increased Turkish troop levels for days. The top US general, Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Chairman Peter Pace, said Turkey has the capability to fight the rebels inside Iraq without boosting troop levels.
“The truth of the matter is that the Turkish armed forces on their side of the border have always had sufficient forces to be able to take actions without having to be reinforced,” Pace said.
NATO-member Turkey has refused to rule out a possible cross-border operation to crush up to 4,000 Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) rebels believed to be based in mountains in northern Iraq, despite opposition from Washington and Baghdad.
The military general staff in Ankara was not immediately available for comment on troop numbers. It usually does not release such figures.
Tensions along the border have soared in recent months following an upsurge in attacks across Turkey that Ankara blames on PKK militants. More than 200 Turkish soldiers and PKK rebels have been killed since the start of the year, a Turkish human rights association said on Friday. Armed forces chief General Yasar Buyukanit has repeatedly urged the government to allow an incursion into Iraq to target PKK militants. Those statements have drawn warnings from the head of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq that Kurds would fight back if attacked.
Washington, while naming the PKK a terrorist group, fears any major operation by Turkey in northern Iraq could anger Iraqi Kurdish allies and stoke wider conflict in a relatively peaceful region of the war-torn country.
But US and Iraqi forces have been unable to clamp down on the PKK because they are stretched fighting insurgents elsewhere in Iraq. Both Washington and Baghdad have called for diplomatic means to calm tensions with Turkey.
Sources close to Turkey’s ruling AK Party say the Turkish government has been reluctant to push for a cross-border operation because it fears the move could rattle the economy ahead of parliamentary elections on July 22.
Ahmet Birsin, editor of Turkish Kurdish local television channel Gun, said people in the region were very worried. “We want peace not more violence,” he said.
But amid national public anger over the deaths, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has hinted parliament could be recalled to approve an operation.
Analysts say the tough talk by the armed forces and the government is partly driven by domestic politics amid rising nationalism in the country.
The armed forces usually boost troop levels in the mainly Kurdish southeast region in the spring when rebels cross the mountains into Turkey from Iraq to carry out attacks.
But security forces said the current buildup was larger than normal. One source said troop levels in Sirnak province were as high as 50,000 compared with 10,000-20,000 normally.
An unusually high number of military convoys have been seen making their way to the border. One Reuters reporter said he saw heavy artillery and tanks being transported on trains.
Security sources said a wide-ranging clampdown in the region â€” including security zones limiting movement of civilians â€” had put the PKK on the defensive, limiting their movements and forcing them to use remote-controlled bombs to attack soldiers rather than risking close combat.
More than 30,000 people have been killed in fighting between Turkish security forces and the PKK since the separatist rebels launched their armed campaign for an independent homeland in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey in 1984.