ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s parliament resoundingly approved a motion on Wednesday allowing troops to cross into northern Iraq to hunt down Kurdish rebels hiding there, brushing aside appeals from the United States and the Baghdad government.
As parliament voted in Ankara by 507 votes to 19 in favor of the motion, U.S. President George W. Bush said it would not be in Turkey’s interests to send troops into northern Iraq.
Washington fears a Turkish incursion could destabilize the most peaceful part of Iraq and possibly the wider region by encouraging others such as arch-foe Iran to intervene.
Iraq’s government said on Wednesday it would send a team to Ankara for further talks to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has played down expectations of any imminent attack but the parliamentary vote gives NATO’s second biggest army the legal basis to cross the mountainous border as and when it sees fit.
"What matters is what parliament has said," Erdogan told reporters as he left the assembly after the vote.
Ankara’s stance has helped propel global oil prices to record highs above $88 a barrel, though they eased on Wednesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek told parliament any army incursion would target only rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). He said Turkey would also continue to use economic and diplomatic measures in its fight against terrorism.
Opposition parties attacked U.S. policies in the region. They repeated Turkish fears the policies would lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state which Ankara says could reignite separatism among its own ethnic Kurdish population.
Only the small pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) spoke against the motion, arguing that military action would worsen the economic plight of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
Fearing possible rebel sabotage, Turkey has beefed up security for a major oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude from the Azeri capital Baku via Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, a senior energy ministry source told Reuters.
Bush repeated U.S. concerns. "They (Turkey) have had troops stationed there for quite a while. We don’t think it’s in their interest to send more troops in," he told a news conference.
Turkey keeps a relatively small contingent of troops at several bases in northern Iraq dating back to the time of previous offensives in the 1990s. Those offensives failed to eliminate the PKK members.
Analysts say that despite its tough rhetoric Turkey may limit itself to aerial bombardment of rebel targets and small forays across the border this time, and avoid a major incursion.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki telephoned Erdogan to reiterate his commitment to combating the PKK. Baghdad said it would send a high-level delegation to Turkey.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, condemned the PKK tactics and urged Turkey to show restraint.
"We consider the activities of the PKK against the interests of the Kurdish people and against the interests of Turkey. We have asked the PKK to stop fighting and end military activity," Talabani said during a visit to Paris.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and France joined the chorus of calls for restraint and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said during an official visit to Ankara he backed Turkey’s fight against terrorism.
Ankara blames the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed struggle for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.