IRBIL, Iraq – Lawmakers in northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region authorized their military Tuesday to intervene if Turkish forces pursuing anti-government rebels bring their battle into civilian areas.
The move heightened fears that the conflict could draw in Iraqi Kurdish forces and destabilize the one region of Iraq that has been relatively peaceful since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
Tensions also were growing between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Turkey, which sent thousands of ground troops over the northern border into Iraqi Kurdistan last week.
Turkey says its aim is to pursue separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who took up arms against the Turkish government in 1984 demanding Kurdish independence in southern Turkey and have bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
But Iraq’s Kurdish minority views the invasion as an infringement of Iraq’s sovereignty.
Iraq’s national government agrees, its spokesman, Ali Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a statement Tuesday. He called the Turkish action “not acceptable” and a threat to Iraq-Turkey relations.
The Kurdish Regional Government’s parliament held a special session in Irbil to discuss the issue Tuesday and voted to authorize the regional military force, the peshmerga, to respond if civilian areas are attacked. It also called for U.S. forces to play a bigger role in protecting Iraq’s land and air space.
The United States considers the PKK a terrorist group and has acknowledged that it knew in advance of Turkish air raids and the subsequent ground invasion.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, about 200 protesters demanded international intervention to drive Turkey out of northern Iraq. “Turkey has to resort to peaceful and diplomatic solutions instead of military ones,” said one, Hawkar Mohammed.
The protesters gathered in central Kirkuk, a Kurdish city scheduled to have a referendum later this year on whether to become part of Kurdistan and break away from Iraqi central government control.
There are concerns that the conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels could exacerbate violence in Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs oppose Kurds’ desire for autonomy.