ANKARA, Turkey - Tens of thousands of Turkish troops were poised yesterday on the border with Iraq awaiting the order to attack Kurdish fighters, and President Abdullah Gul said the country will do "what it believes to be right" to tame the rebels.
But with winter rapidly approaching in the mountainous region, and pressure from the United States to avoid an all-out cross-border incursion, officials and analysts said Turkey will probably be looking toward a limited offensive involving raids and aerial assaults.
Several possibilities are being discussed, including F-16 strikes on rebel positions, helicopter raids, and special forces missions, according to a government official familiar with the planning.
"The area is heavily mined and a big incursion with tens of thousands of troops is out of the question," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
With the Turkish government talking openly for weeks about the likelihood of an attack, the official said intelligence information shows the guerrillas have been evacuating their camps and melting away into cities and other regions.
A high-ranking retired military officer who participated in the planning of previous incursions into northern Iraq in the mid-1990s said he had received the same information.
"They are apparently evacuating camps along the border ahead of a Turkish operation, as usual," said the officer, also on condition of anonymity.
The United States and Iraq have been pressing Turkey to avoid a major cross-border attack on Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, rebel bases in northern Iraq out of fear such an incursion would bring instability to what has been one of the calmest areas in Iraq.
In northern Iraq, a spokesman for one of the two parties that governs the semiautonomous region urged Turkey to refrain from any attack, but suggested scaled-down raids would not be as destabilizing.
"We reject any kind of Turkish military strike, whether limited or not," Azad Jindyany, spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said in Sulaimaniyah. "A limited one would cause a limited problem, but an unlimited strike would destroy the whole situation."
The former military officer said Turkey was planning for air strikes from planes and helicopter gunships, as well as special forces commando raids.
But scaled-down assaults wouldn't necessarily rule out the use of large numbers of troops, he said.
"A few thousand troops could still penetrate the Iraqi border to block escape routes of the rebels during a pinpoint raid," he said.
PKK rebels have killed more than 40 Turks in hit-and-run attacks over the past month, mainly soldiers, raising the public pressure on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to retaliate.
Gul said yesterday that Turkey had made its decision on what to do about the PKK rebels.
"Turkey will carry out what it believes to be right with determination," state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Gul as saying.
While he did not specify what the decision was, the president made it clear that Turkey feels the PKK is leading to instability in the region.
The comments were made a day after President Bush met in Washington with Erdogan and promised him the United States would share military intelligence in the hunt for PKK rebels.
Following that meeting, Erdogan strongly suggested an attack was imminent.