ANKARA: Turkey will remain in northern Iraq until all terrorist groups are removed, Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Tuesday amid increasing government warnings of a military operation against Kurdish militants based in the Qandil mountains.
Speaking at a roundtable interview with the state-run Anadolu news agency, Canikli also said Turkey had offered to carry out a potential operation into Qandil with Iran, who has voiced support for the offensive.
There was no immediate confirmation of his assertion from Tehran.
The Turkish military has ramped up airstrikes in northern Iraq targeting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in Qandil, close to the Iraq-Iran border, where high-ranking members of the militant group are thought to be located.
The government has also said Turkish troops have deployed roughly 30 km (nearly 20 miles) inside northern Iraq, not far from Qandil.
Canikli said Turkey was also in full agreement with Baghdad on a potential operation into Qandil, adding that Ankara was in talks with “all possible countries” on the matter.
Iraq, however, said it would not accept any Turkish operation against Qandil or other PKK strongholds.
“The Iraqi government will not accept any advance on its land by Turkish forces in pursuit of the PKK elements currently present in the Sinjar, Makhmour and Qandil mountains,” Saad Al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi told the Iraqi News Agency.
He added that the Iraqi government would “absolutely not allow” any aggression from inside its land against Turkey or other states.
Canikli, however, said there were “serious attacks and infiltration” into Turkey from Qandil, and that Turkey would remain in northern Iraq until all terrorists groups were removed.
With a large Kurdish population of its own, concentrated in the southeast, Ankara has long resisted Kurdish ambitions for independence in Iraq, Syria or Iran, fearing it could inflame separatism inside Turkey.
An offensive against the PKK in Qandil would mark Turkey’s third cross-border operation since 2016, with the first two targeting Kurdish militia fighters in northern Syria.
Last week, Turkey and the US also endorsed a roadmap for the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization linked to the PKK, from the northern Syrian city of Manbij.
US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters that Turkish and US officials would meet in Germany this week to discuss the details of the roadmap, namely joint patrols inside Manbij to secure the region.
Canikli also said officials would discuss the Manbij roadmap during talks in Germany this week.
Analysts say that a major operation against the PKK in northern Iraq would give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a welcome boost in the snap polls, which are expected to be tighter than initially predicted.
But an extensive ground operation would also be fraught with risk, given the complex mountainous terrain of the Qandil region, which is well known to the PKK but not the Turkish army.
Outlawed by Ankara and its Western allies, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, and the army is battling the group’s militants both inside Turkey and in northern Iraq.