Turkey says ready to face world criticism over Iraq

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ISTANBUL, Oct 12 (Reuters) Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said today that Ankara was prepared to face up to any international criticism if his country launched an attack on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.

Washington fears such an offensive, against Turkish Kurds fighting for an independent homeland in southeastern Turkey, could destabilise Iraq's most peaceful area and potentially the wider region.

Asked about world reaction to such an incursion, Erdogan told reporters: ''After going down this route, its cost has already been calculated. Whatever the cost is, it will be met.'' Faced with a sharp escalation of attacks by Kurdish militants on Turkish troops, Erdogan's government has decided to seek approval from parliament next week for a major military operation to target Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels who use northern Iraq as a base to attack Turkish targets.

Erdogan, speaking outside a mosque in Istanbul after today prayers, said he wanted to secure parliament's approval now to avoid spending time later with the procedure if, and when a cross-border operation was warranted.

Some analysts say an operation is more likely after a vote on Wednesday in which a US congressional committee branded killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One as genocide -- a charge Turkey firmly denies.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Erdogan yesterday to express her disappointment at the U.S. bill, which the White House has tried to stop.

Over the past few days Washington has sought to calm tensions with Turkey, and urged it not to take unilateral action. The European Union, which Turkey wants to join, have also cautioned against such moves.

Ankara recalled its ambassador from the United States for consultations after the vote, which was strongly condemned in predominantly Muslim but secular Turkey. The vote sparked street protests in Ankara and Istanbul.

The Turkish government cautioned yesterday that relations with its NATO ally would be harmed by the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee's decision.

''... Some in Congress wanted to play hardball. I can assure you that Turkey knows how to play hardball,'' Egemen Bagis, ruling AK Party deputy chairman and Erdogan's foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Potential moves could include blocking US access to the Incirlik air base, cancelling procurement contracts, downscaling bilateral visits, denying airspace to US aircraft, and halting joint military exercises, diplomats say.

VOTE BY MID-NOVEMBER The non-binding resolution by the congressional committee now goes to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrat leaders say there will be a vote by mid-November. The resolution was proposed by a leading politician with many Armenian-Americans in his district.

Armenian-Americans, some descended from Armenians who fled the region during World War One, represent a powerful lobby in American politics and have for years lobbied to get a resolution passed. The arrival of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker has brought fresh pressure from Armenian-American Democrats.

Erdogan said Turkey respected Iraq's unity but if it did nothing to stop the separatist PKK then Ankara had to act.

''As regards Iraq's political integrity, unity, territorial unity and the central government, we have nothing against it and there's no question of thoughts of sanctions ... (But) if they aren't doing anything to stop it (the attacks), then of course we need to do something,'' he said.

Ankara says 3,000 PKK rebels are based in northern Iraq from where they stage frequent deadly attacks into Turkey.

Ankara blames the PKK 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.

Today a soldier was killed and two wounded in Sirnak province, near the border with Iraq, by a mine laid by PKK militants, the army said.

Army sources told Reuters an operation in the area, backed up from the air, was intensified today after the mine blast.

REUTERS PD BD1620

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