Masud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, has called on militants in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to leave northern Iraq in order to prevent Turkish air strikes from causing civilian casualties.
Barzani’s office issued the statement on August 1, just hours after another series of Turkish air strikes against PKK camps in northern Iraq killed at least six people in the village of Zarkel to the east of the autonomous Kurdish region’s capital Irbil.
The PKK fighters have been crossing into northern Iraq from southeastern Turkey as part of a cease-fire deal with Ankara that was reached in 2013.
Barzani’s call for the PKK to leave the region came a day after the head of foreign relations for Iraq’s Kurdish region, Falah Mustafa Bakir, criticized the PKK for abandoning their cease-fire deal with Turkish authorities.
Bakir also said Turkey’s air strikes in northern Iraq are not an appropriate response to PKK attacks, and that Iraqis have been “caught in between” the two sides.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on August 1 that Ankara opened a probe into reports of civilian casualties in Zarkel air strikes.
The reports had been received "with sorrow," the ministry said in a statement.
But it also accused the PKK of using "civilians as human shields."
Turkey says its air strikes were retaliation for a series of targeted killings of police officers and soldiers by the Kurdish militant group.
The PKK said those attacks were in response to what they claimed was collaboration with Islamic State (IS) militants by Turkish authorities that allowed an IS suicide bomber to kill 32 Kurdish activists on July 20 in southeastern Turkey’s border city of Suruc.
Bakir said northern Iraq’s Kurdish leaders believe “there is no military solution to such kind of problems,” and that the “best way forward would be peace and talks.”
He said the Turkish air strikes have “affected us negatively, because it is the mountainous border areas of [Iraq’s] Kurdistan region that have been bombarded."
Iraq’s Kurdish regional government was already struggling to assist refugees fleeing IS advances in western Iraq before the PKK’s cease-fire with Turkey broke down.
Bakir was careful not to openly criticize Turkey. Earlier this week, Iraq’s central government in Baghdad called Turkey’s air strikes in the region "an assault on Iraqi sovereignty."
Turkey’s renewed fight with the PKK also has put the United States in an uncomfortable position.
U.S. officials have supported the strikes against the PKK, which they brand as a terrorist group, even as they support Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria as allies against IS militants.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the Peshmerga a model for the kind of force needed to defeat IS during a visit Irbil on July 24.
Yet some of those Iraqi Kurdish forces that he lauded reportedly received training in the PKK camps that Turkey has been bombarding.
The strategically murky and inflammable situation derives from the Kurds’ status as minorities throughout the region -- in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
The PKK’s fight for a separate Kurdish state resonates within the far-flung community, where many long for greater autonomy.
Only in Iraq have Kurds ruled an autonomous region, which was established in the early 1990s.
That region borders Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey as well as a part of northeastern Syria that is now run by Syrian Kurds as a result of their gains in the fight against IS.
Opposition groups in Turkey have said the attacks on PKK camps are motivated at least in part by Ankara’s concern that Kurdish battlefield successes against IS militants could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its border and strengthen calls by Kurds in Turkey for independence.
Turkey’s assaults on the PKK coincided with its first air strikes against IS militants and a decision by Ankara to allow its air bases to be used by the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the militant Sunni extremist group.
Bakir said he was assured in meetings with U.S. officials in Washington during the past week that the U.S. agreement with Turkey was solely to join forces in the fight against IS militants, and did not involve the PKK.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa