ANKARA, Turkey — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that Turkey should remove its troops from northern Iraq in the next few days, sending a strong message that U.S. patience is running out on the operation targeting Kurdish insurgents.
Gates said he would ask Turkish leaders in a series of meetings Thursday to address some of the complaints of the Kurds, and move from combat to economic and political initiatives to solve differences with them.
"It's very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave," Gates said late Wednesday from India before heading to Turkey. "They have to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty. I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months."
It was the first time that the Pentagon chief put any time limit on the Turkish incursion launched into Iraq last Thursday against separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The rebels are fighting for autonomy in the largely Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey, and have carried out attacks from northern Iraq. Overnight, Turkish troops killed more than 70 Kurdish rebels, the Turkish military said.
A Turkish official insisted that the aim of a military incursion into northern Iraq "is clear and limited" against Kurdish rebels and said no timetable will be set "until the terrorist bases are eliminated." Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made the comments at a joint news conference in Baghdad on Wednesday with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
"Our objective is clear. Our mission is clear and there is no timetable ... until the terrorist bases are eliminated," he said shortly after arriving in the capital at the helm of a delegation to discuss the military action.
The Iraqi government demanded for the first time that Turkey immediately withdraw from northern Iraq, warning on Tuesday that it feared an ongoing incursion could lead to clashes with the official forces of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Erdogan had said the operation would only end "once its goal has been reached." And Turkish fighter jets, helicopters and hundreds of commandos streamed across the border into northern Iraq on Wednesday.
One senior U.S. defense official traveling to Turkey with Gates said that as Pentagon leaders watched events unfold in the Turkish incursion, there was some debate over whether Gates should cancel his visit to Ankara this week.
But after a "short discussion," the official said, it was determined that the better course of action was to go because it would be more effective for Gates to deliver his message in person, than not go and have his snub be the message. The official agreed to talk about the private discussions only on condition of anonymity.
Gates had just begun his overseas trip when the Turks launched their attacks. He will be meeting with the Turkish president, prime minister, defense minister and military chief of defense.
In other comments just before leading New Delhi, Gates said the U.S. is in the "early stages" of discussions with India on a missile defense system and is taking about doing a joint analysis to determine what India's needs will be and how the two countries can cooperate.
Gates also said the Indian government needs to move quickly to approve a landmark nuclear cooperation pact between India and the United States. "The clock is ticking in terms of how much time is available to get all the different aspects of this agreement implemented," he told reporters.
Gates said he has not heard from the Turks on how long they intend to continue the attacks in Iraq, and does not know whether the U.S. would consider halting its intelligence assistance to the Turks if it goes on too long.
He also said it is critically important for the Turks to communicate closely with the Iraqi government as well as the semiautonomous Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq. And he repeated contentions he made earlier this week, that military action alone will not solve the problems there.
"There certainly is a place for security operations, but these also need to be accompanied with economic and political initiatives that begin to deal with some of the issues that provide a favorable local environment where the PKK can operate," Gates said. "They need to address some of the issues and complaints that some of the Kurds have and move this in a nonmilitary direction in order to get a long term solution."
Gates said that since the U.S. provides intelligence and surveillance help to the Turks, other help might also be possible for economic and other efforts.
Gates, who is on an eight-day, around-the-world trip to four countries, spoke at length about the improving relations between India and the U.S. But while noting the U.S. must be respectful of local Indian politics, he said New Delhi must act soon on the nuclear pact to give the U.S. Senate time to ratify it.
On the Net:
CIA World Factbook on Turkey: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html