The mission comes amid heightened tensions that grew more acute when a cross-border attack by PKK rebels killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers on October 21. Ankara has pledged to do all it can diplomatically to avoid taking military action, but international leaders are taking the threat of an escalation of violence seriously.
It is a decades-old tension that stems from the PKK's goal of establishing an independent homeland in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. But there are fears that a Turkish incursion into Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region would have an incalculable effect on security in the rest of Iraq -- and the region.
Erdogan: 'Turkey Can't Wait Forever'
Meanwhile, in London, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown today. Brown said after the meeting that Britain shares Turkey's concerns about PKK bases in Iraq.
"We condemn, absolutely and unequivocally, the terrorist violence of the PKK, the fact that 12 members of the Turkish Army have been killed, the fact that eight have now been kidnapped, and the fact [of the] civilian violence as a result their activities within Turkey," Brown said. This "is something that the whole world community has condemned over the last few days."
Erdogan warned that Turkey cannot wait forever for the Iraqi government to act against Kurdish rebels. But he said that if there was an incursion, Ankara would take care to only pursue the PKK. "The mandate that was issued to the Turkish government for an operation into northern Iraq would be targeted solely at the PKK because we have always stood side by side with the Iraqi people in difficult times in the past and there is no doubt we will continue to support them in the future," Erdogan said. "We have no plans whatsoever to infringe on the territorial integrity or political unity of Iraq."
Last week, the Turkish parliament authorized the government to carry out military strikes in northern Iraq to root out PKK bases. Turkey has deployed as many as 100,000 troops along its border with Iraq. Ankara claims some 3,000 PKK fighters are based in northern Iraq, and the Turkish military is shelling the alleged camps on almost a daily basis.
U.S. Urges Caution, Dialogue
The United States has been calling on NATO member Turkey to refrain from military actions in Iraq. Turkey hosts a U.S. military base at Incirlik that is a crucial supply line to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On October 22, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again urged Turkey not to take unilateral action. "The United States is determined to work with our allies in Iraq and to work with our allies in Turkey to try and deal with what is a very difficult situation of terrorism from a fairly remote part of northern Iraq," she said. "And it requires information sharing, it requires a great deal of coordination."
The Kurdish region is one of the few relatively stable areas of Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Anthony Cordesman, who specializes in Middle East politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan policy center in Washington, says that the United States has been actively engaging both the Iraqi and Kurdish regional governments to find a solution.
"One of the key issues is to try to resolve the stand that the Iraqi Kurds are taking, whether they are going to actually take action of some kind against the PKK," Cordesman says. "Now that doesn't have to be military; it may consist of political pressure. One of the possibilities is to push the PKK into some kind of cease-fire and to try and at least offer some kind of peaceful alternative to the Turkish government to military intervention."
On October 21, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said that if Turkey and its powerful army can't deal with the PKK, Iraq certainly won't be able to. But Cordesman says that for the Iraqi Kurds, it's not a question of military power.
"There's no doubt that if the Iraqi Kurds were willing to take the risk, they could send elements of the peshmerga [Kurdish militia]," Cordesman says. "The problem would be: Would they have the political support for doing this? The PKK may not have support from Talabani or [Iraqi Kurdistan President Mas'ud] Barzani, but the PKK does have popular support among many Iraqi Kurds. And it isn't easy for the Kurdish leaders to commit Kurdish forces to a mission where some of those forces, at least, see the PKK as on the right side and the Turks as on the wrong side."
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the EU. Some 35,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.
(RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew Tully contributed to this report.)