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Turkey's battle plan could threaten northern Iraq

Story Highlights

• Calls in Turkey growing for attack on hard-line Kurdish separatist group PKK
• Six people killed, more than 100 injured in Tuesday's bomb blast
• Turkish election to be held in July
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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- The war drums are getting louder in Turkey, and they can be heard next door in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and across the globe in Washington as well.

Many Turkish officials and citizens -- enraged by Tuesday's deadly bombing -- want the Turkish military to hit back at the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the hard-line Kurdish separatist group thought by many in the government and on the street to have staged the blast and other militant actions.

At least six people died and more than 100 were injured in the rush hour bombing at an Ankara shopping district. (Full story)

Senior Turkish officers have said that operations against the PKK would require troops to cross into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which many PKK militants -- also long situated in southeastern Turkey -- have chosen as their base.

The PKK denies involvement in the Ankara attack, and a U.S. State Department spokesman cautions that the investigation into the attack is "ongoing."

However, the outrage in Turkey toward the PKK has been boiling over.

On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if the military were to request a retaliation, the parliament, which is dominated by Erdogan's AK party, would support it.

Turkey's army chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, said recently his troops are ready to attack what he calls Kurdish terrorist camps in northern Iraq. And retired Turkish Gen. Edip Baser told CNN he believes an operation could be just weeks away.

As late as two weeks ago, there were an estimated 150,000 Turkish soldiers on or near the Turkish-Iraq border, and the PKK has stepped up cross-border attacks into the Kurdish region of Turkey now that snows have melted in the border mountains.

Seven Turkish soldiers were killed in the volatile southeast this week.

Six Turkish soldiers died and 10 were wounded Thursday when a roadside bomb detonated near the town of Siirt, the Turkish military said. Another soldier died Wednesday in an accident near Van during a search operation.

July election

The tough talk in Ankara comes two months before a general election, in which Erdogan's party, a movement with Islamist roots, faces a challenge from secularist parties. The vast majority of Turks are Muslims, but there has been a strict separation of mosque and state since the Turkish republic came into being in 1923. (Full story)

Supporters of Turkey's secular heritage have been demonstrating for weeks against the plan by Erdogan's governing party to vote one of its own members to the Turkish presidency.

Some analysts think that in the run-up to the election, Erdogan's AK party will use a war against Kurdish separatists to rally public opinion and downplay its differences with the military.

Mustafa Aydin -- professor of international relations at Ankara University and the National Security Academy -- said the government would "try to use this to rally Turkish people around the government, around the people. They will most likely try to use nationalistic themes and terms during the propaganda."

U.S. support

Nationalist feelings in Turkey are running high. Many Turks are disappointed with the lack of U.S. support for this long-time ally on the issue of operations against the PKK -- and resent U.S. support for Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.

The United States is not deaf to the problem, but is caught between the competing interests of vital regional allies.

Two months ago, the special U.S. envoy working with Turkey on the threat of the PKK testified before a House committee. Retired Gen. Joseph Ralston said that Turkey is a "sovereign state with a responsibility to defend its people. Ultimately, the Turkish government will have to take the steps it thinks are necessary to protect its citizens."

He pointed to efforts to close a refugee camp in northern Iraq that has become a refuge for fighters and to get a "cessation of hostilities."

"Diplomatic progress on this issue has come grudgingly and with great effort, but there has been progress," Ralston testified in March. He could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey cautioned that the Turkish authorities have not come to any final conclusions about who is responsible for the blast and that their probe into the blast continues.

At the same time, he said, "we believe, as does the Iraqi government, that the PKK represents a real threat, and it's a threat that needs to be dealt with."

Ralston's appointment as special envoy shows the importance of the issue, he said.

Casey said the "best way to deal" with the PKK is through "continued cooperation" between Turkey and Iraq, with the help of the United States.

"And we certainly don't think unilateral military action from Turkey or anyplace else would solve anything," he said.

Iraq backs Turkey

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the Iraqi government has expressed a willingness to work with Turkey on the issue of PKK terrorism.

Baser, a former special Turkish envoy on the PKK, has called the issue a "testing ground of Turkish-American relations."

The PKK has backing, with many Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey supporting a dream of an independent state. One PKK sympathizer, Faik Kaplan, told CNN that inviting the PKK to lay down its arms would be a better way to go than Turkish troops crossing the border.

But Turkey says it won't talk to PKK militants, and that stand resonates on the streets. Mustafa Ersoy, an Ankara shopkeeper, said: "The special message the flag carries is that the Turkish people are one body. And there is no power that can split the Turkish people into pieces."

The PKK has been fighting for what it calls Kurdish rights since the early 1980s. More than 30,000 people have lost their lives in the violence. The last incursions made by Turkey into Iraq came in the early 1990s.

CNN's Paula Hancocks, Phil Black, Talia Kayali, Joe Sterling and Elise Labott contributed to this report.



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