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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Turkish army's PKK challenge
By Nick Childs
BBC News

Turkish convoy 2210
Turkish troops have been heading towards the Iraqi border

News that eight Turkish soldiers are missing after the latest clash with Kurdish PKK guerrillas is likely only to increase the domestic pressure on the Turkish authorities to take action against rebel bases in northern Iraq.

Twelve Turkish soldiers also died in the latest raid.

The Turkish military is clearly well up to launching a major incursion across the border into Iraq, if so ordered.

Turkey has the second largest army in Nato - more than 400,000 troops.

It may not be the most modern and most of its soldiers are conscripts. But they have a reputation for being among the toughest in the world.

The Turkish military has a lot of experience from 15 years of fighting the PKK on Turkish soil.

But it was also a grim and very bloody experience.

Turkish army numbers 400,000
PKK rebels estimated at 3,000
Two sides fought for 15 years

And taking on the PKK guerrillas in the inhospitable mountains of northern Iraq - ideal guerrilla territory with much of the population friendly to the rebels - would still be a huge challenge.

One overall lesson of events in Iraq in the past four years has been the difficulties for even the world's most formidable army of fighting a counter-insurgency campaign against a determined foe.

The Kurdish guerrillas may number only 3,000 or so. But they are clearly no push-over, as their rather audacious recent raids have shown.

And they may have gained from the general chaos in Iraq recently - in terms of their freedom of action, the experience of their fighters and greater access to weapons and explosives.

American interest

The Turkish army has mounted many cross-border operations in the past, from small raids and air strikes to major incursions involving tens of thousands of troops.

But the political backdrop, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, is very different now.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has just met his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul, in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Turkish protest 2210
Pressure has been mounting for the Turkish army to act

Mr Gates declared that a major cross-border incursion would not be in the interests of Turkey, the United States or Iraq.

His Turkish opposite number said planning was under way, but - like others in the Turkish government - he suggested that nothing was imminent.

So, all this talk of incursions may still be meant mainly as a political lever, to encourage others.

What the Turkish military could and might do if it actually did take action would depend on the purpose of any mission, and whether it has good intelligence on where the PKK's bases are. That is not clear.

It seems the Americans have shared some intelligence. But it is not clear how good that is either.

Small raids might be containable, but may not be effective.

A much bigger sweep risks huge political and military fall-out, especially if it provokes a general Kurdish backlash. Hence, perhaps, the hesitation.

But the domestic pressures on the authorities in Ankara to do something are clearly huge and mounting.

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