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Last Updated: Friday, 2 November 2007, 09:51 GMT
Turkish anti-PKK anger mounts
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Turkish woman holds poster with pictures of dead Turkish soldiers
Turkish protesters remember the dead soldiers
The coffin of a Turkish soldier - draped in the red and white national flag - was loaded onto my plane back from the Iraq border region to Istanbul this week.

Soldiers stood and saluted as the flight took off, carrying the latest casualty in weeks of intensified clashes with the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Almost every day now the newspapers here are full of the soldiers' life stories and pictures of their funerals. Many of those dying are young conscripts.

These casualties - and the deaths of 12 soldiers and capture of eight more in one PKK ambush in particular - are fuelling anger and frustration in Turkey.

There is a sense that Turkey is battling alone against the PKK - a group that the US and EU both label as "terrorist".

Ankara argues that the mountains of northern Iraq have become the PKK's safe haven and command centre.

"Something has to be done!" has become almost a catchphrase here now, from sober commentators to furious protesters on the streets.

Government under scrutiny

"The public's patience is really running out," says Radikal newspaper columnist Haluk Sahin. He describes himself as pessimistic about what comes next.

Last month, the Turkish parliament authorised the government to order cross-border military operations, if required.

"The Turkish government is clearly reluctant to use force in northern Iraq, but it's under tremendous pressure to come up with something. We have seen empty promises for such a long time," he says.

Turkey has complained for months about PKK bases inside northern Iraq and what it sees as a US and Iraqi failure to act against them.

With tension now so high, all attention is focused on Friday's visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Ankara and the meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President George Bush in Washington that follows on Monday.

Turks expect the government to teach the PKK a lesson
Mehmet Ali Kislali

"I will tell him (Bush) that we expect immediate concrete steps against the terrorists," Mr Erdogan said this week. "The problem of the PKK is a sincerity test for everyone. It is important to determine the fate of our future relations."

On Wednesday, a Pentagon spokesman said the US was now giving Turkey more intelligence on PKK positions inside Iraq. But commentators here feel Prime Minister Erdogan will have to emerge from his talks with President Bush with more than that - and most are sceptical.

"If the US does not provide an acceptable solution to this crisis, then the Turkish government cannot afford to stand still," says columnist Mehmet Ali Kislali.

"The Turkish population expects the government to teach the PKK a lesson. Everyone knows the PKK will not be wiped out with military action. But the overriding feeling is that something has to be done to prove that Turkey will not hesitate in such a situation," explains Mr Kislali.

Targeted strikes

Turkey has been massing troops on the Iraqi border since Spring. Some reports suggest up to 100,000 soldiers are now in the region. But the consensus remains that Turkey would prefer to avoid a major ground offensive.

"Creating a buffer zone across the border would need a large number of soldiers. Targeted operations can be repeated many times and need much less - say, 50 special forces soldiers, two planes, two attack helicopters," says retired Maj-Gen Armagan Kuloglu.

Turkish soldiers block a road near the town of Yuksekova, 31 October 2007
Turkey has massed forces in the border region
"It is impossible to stop the PKK this way - the target is to reduce their activities. If our aircraft bomb according to intelligence they can destroy some logistics bases and provide a morale boost to Turkish public opinion. That will also put pressure on the PKK, the Iraqi Kurds and even the US," he explains.

The onset of winter would make any ground incursion more difficult; more doveish Turks hope it will also subdue PKK attacks, thereby easing pressure on the government.

But it appears preparations for possible large-scale operations are under way.

Shortly after parliament voted to authorise possible military action, the health ministry distributed a circular to state medical facilities warning them to prepare to send doctors to southeastern Turkey or northern Iraq if required.

There have been 24 cross-border operations into Iraq before. The head of the Ankara Doctors' Union describes such a circular as "unusual".

Belligerent mood

Ahead of the Erdogan-Bush meeting Turkey does appear to be holding fire, both on major military action and fully-fledged economic sanctions.

But Ankara has been talking tough for so long, many here feel it is time for action.

I think the US will find a way to calm the public here
Anti-war protester

Nationalist feeling is running at fever pitch. Turkish flags - already prominent - now adorn most buildings, many cars and businesses.

This weekend left-wing trade unionists and rights groups will demonstrate in Ankara against military action.

"I think the US will find a way to calm the public here, to convince the government that America will act to help us," one man who will travel from Istanbul for the protest told the BBC.

But the demonstration he is heading for is likely to be small.

Any military action in northern Iraq would inevitably mean more Turkish soldiers die, not fewer. That fact seems no deterrent though.

"As the losses here increase, so does the demand for counter-action - for a strong response," explains Mehmet Ali Kislali.

At the mass funeral of one soldier this week his widow told her two young sons not to cry - and to hold their Turkish flags up higher.

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