Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that an army operation is still planned against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, but diplomats suggested on Tuesday that any action would now be limited in scope.
Erdogan held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday to push Washington to crack down on some 3,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in northern Iraq from where they carry out attacks in Turkey.
Bush said after their meeting that he was committed to countering the PKK, which he called their common enemy and offered to share intelligence with Turkey, a NATO ally.
While the talks yielded positive results they were unlikely to be enough to allow Turkey to step back from pursuing a military offensive, even if limited to air strikes and special operations, Turkish diplomats said.
The U.S. has agreed to give Turkey 'actionable intelligence' and that means allowing us to take military action against the PKK once we have real time information, a Turkish diplomat told Reuters, adding this included inside Iraq.
In response to what it sees as foot-dragging by Iraq and a lack of pressure from the United States, Turkey has mustered 100,000 troops on the border with Iraq and threatened to go after the PKK if nothing is done to rein them in.
The United States is against Turkey sending thousands of troops across the border, fearing it could destabilize northern Iraq and cause a bigger regional crisis. It has not opposed limited military strikes.
Turkey is a crucial ally for Washington, which uses Incirlik air base to provide logistical support for its forces in Iraq.
Erdogan told the National Press Club in Washington late on Monday that action was planned against the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey.
We are not on the eve of a war. We have made a decision on an operation. I want to stress once again that what we will do is an operation, he said.
Turkey's parliament last month approved a government request to permit major military cross-border operations into northern Iraq against the PKK in response to an escalation in deadly attacks by the rebels against soldiers and civilians.
Diplomats and analysts said Turkey was moving towards a limited offensive rather than a full-scale incursion which would harm Turkey's image abroad.
Although the meeting did not meet the expectations of the Turkish public, I think it satisfied the expectations of the government, Faruk Logoglu, an influential former Turkish ambassador to Washington, told Reuters.
It's highly possible for Turkey to do some limited operations in the short term; either air strikes or some pinpoint operations by the Turkish special forces against PKK camps in northern Iraq, he said.
An escalation in separatist violence in recent weeks has sparked a public outcry in Turkey with mounting calls for an offensive against the militants in northern Iraq.
Erdogan said he had given Bush a list of five demands he wanted the United States to take against the PKK. These included shutting down PKK camps and cutting off logistics support.
We got what we wanted, Erdogan said. Nobody is telling us not to do an operation, he added.
Iraq has pledged to hunt down and arrest PKK leaders. But Baghdad has little influence over the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north and the success of any measures against the PKK would depend on cooperation of Kurdish authorities.
General Hilmi Ozkok, who retired last year as the head of Turkey's military, said in an interview with Milliyet newspaper that a cross border operation would not eliminate the PKK.
The armed groups on the other side of the border have a great strategic depth. They pack up their bags and move back 200 km (125 miles), Ozkok said.
But if you ask me if this operation will benefit (Turkey)? I would say of course it will. You will show a great will. You show that you are determined to finish off (the PKK).
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast. Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
(Writing by Paul de Bendern, editing by Keith Weir)