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Iraq scolds Turkey over latest anti-PKK offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited a military base in northern Iraq to supervise Turkish operations against PKK militants, drawing anger from Baghdad.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Iraq has formally complained — yet again — over Turkey’s escalating military presence on its soil. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that it had summoned the Turkish charge d’affaires and handed him “a protest note” over “violations of Iraqi sovereignty” arising from the May 1 visit by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to a Turkish military base in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey responded that it fully respected Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity and signaled its intention to carry on the operation, saying it was in line with efforts to eradicate rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Akar, who was accompanied by Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Guler and Land Forces Commander Umit Dundar, was briefed by local Turkish commanders about Turkey’s latest offensive against the PKK. “Operation Claw Lightening” is focused on Metina, a mountainous area bordering Turkey.

Akar said 44 PKK fighters had been killed so far. “Our struggle against terrorism will continue until every last terrorist is neutralized,” he said.

A day prior to Akar’s tour, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that Turkey would be establishing a new base in Metina and that it would be used to monitor and curtail the PKK’s movements between its main bases in the Qandil mountains bordering Iran and those to the west in Yazidi-dominated Sinjar on the Syrian border.

PKK sources claim that Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the dominant group in the Kurdistan Regional Government, are taking part in the Turkish offensive. KRG spokesperson Jotiar Adil denied the claim via a WhatsApp message to Al-Monitor.

Baghdad’s reaction is unlikely to deter Turkey and is more of a face-saving exercise by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as it struggles to assert its authority.

Iran, through its Shiite militia proxies, is a more effective check on Turkish expansion in Iraq. They typically flex their muscles when Turkey strays outside areas formally under the KRG’s control or seems as if it’s about to.

Last month, a Turkish base in Iraq’s Bashiqa region near Mosul was attacked with rockets thought to have been launched by Iranian-backed militias. One Turkish soldier died in the attack, which came amid growing speculation that Turkey was planning an offensive against Sinjar, a strategic pathway to northeast Syria. Sinjar is among 14 disputed territories claimed by the Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad.

An October 2020 agreement between Baghdad and the KRG under the auspices of the United Nations calling for the withdrawal of PKK elements from Sinjar, among other things, has yet to be implemented. Turkey frequently cites the delay as justification for taking matters into its own hands. But the consensus is that it cannot risk the likely retaliation from Iran and its proxies, not to mention the global censure that would almost certainly ensue, particularly if Yazidis, who were subjected to genocidal killings by the Islamic State, were to come to further harm.

According to the latest tally by the International Crisis Group, a total of 5,732 Turkish forces, PKK militants and civilians have died since July 2015, when a two-and-a-half-year cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK collapsed. Around 15%, 773, of them died in Iraqi Kurdistan. The overwhelming majority of those fatalities, 600, occurred within the PKK’s ranks.

Some 43 civilians also perished, likely in Turkish bombing raids.

The civilian deaths are an enduring source of popular fury in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many point the finger of blame at KRG authorities for not only failing to deter Turkey but apparently colluding with it against fellow Kurds. Last week in Sulaimaniyah, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, dozens of PKK supporters were arrested, some subjected to police violence, during a rally to protest Turkey’s operation.

While the PKK is under growing pressure in Iraqi Kurdistan and its operational capacity in Turkey is vastly diminished, PKK-linked groups are carrying out sustained attacks against Turkish forces and their allies in the Syrian National Army in the large swath of territory occupied by Turkey in northern Syria, notably in the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin.