Rice wary after incursion

Turks pursue Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq

December 19, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking shortly after Turkey sent about 300 troops across the border in pursuit of Kurdish separatist guerrillas, cautioned yesterday against any action that could destabilize Iraq.

Turkey's one-day incursion began hours before Rice arrived in Kirkuk in the latest attempt to revive Iraq's stalled reconciliation process after a sharp downturn in violence.

U.S. officials have reported a 60 percent drop in attacks nationwide since the completion of a 28,500-troop buildup in June. And yesterday, a quarterly report to Congress termed it the longest period of such progress in nearly two years.

Concern is nevertheless growing in Washington about the failure of Iraqi politicians to take advantage of the ebbing violence by passing power-sharing legislation aimed at resolving tensions between the country's main ethnic and sectarian groups.

Without progress on the political front, U.S. officials worry that violence could flare up again as the U.S. force returns to its pre-buildup levels by summer. Underlining the risk, a suicide bomber killed at least 16 people and injured 28 in a Shiite Muslim village north of Baghdad yesterday.

U.S. officials are engaged in a delicate balancing act between two close allies, the Turkish government and the Kurdish regional authorities in northern Iraq, where Kurdish Workers Party guerrillas often hide between attacks on targets in southern Turkey.

The United States considers the Kurdish party, known as PKK, a terrorist organization. During a visit this month, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said Washington shares Turkey's goal of ending PKK activities in Iraq "once and for all."

Turkish officials have said that the United States is supplying intelligence to assist them in their attacks.

U.S. officials do not want any steps taken that could upset stability in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, an island of relative tranquillity and economic growth.

Rice reaffirmed yesterday that the United States, Iraq and Turkey share a "common interest in stopping the activities of the PKK."

But circumstances demand "an overall, comprehensive approach to this problem," she said in Baghdad, adding, "No one should do anything which threatens to destabilize the north."

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani refused to fly to Baghdad to meet with Rice, noting U.S. support for incursions by Turkish forces fighting the PKK.

Kurdish officials said Turkish troops penetrated about 1 1/2 miles into Iraq yesterday, moving through rugged mountains near the Iranian border that are used by PKK rebels. Wire reports quoted the Turkish Defense Ministry as saying that its troops responded to a group of rebels spotted trying to infiltrate into Turkey and dealt them a "heavy blow."

A news agency linked to the PKK reported that the rebels ambushed the Turkish troops, killing eight of them and wounding many more. It made no reference to PKK casualties.

Jabar Yawar, deputy regional minister in charge of the Peshmerga security forces in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, confirmed the clashes but had no information on casualties. Shortly after nightfall, the Turkish forces withdrew to their side of the border, he said.

Yawar characterized the incursion as "limited" and noted that the fighting took place in a remote region, far from civilians. But he warned that "If the Turkish forces penetrate to safe areas, where the Kurdish villages are located, then the Kurdistan region will defend itself."

Turkish news reports quoted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying, "Our army is doing what it has to do right now.

"We do not have any negative attitude toward Iraq's territorial integrity, and we do not have any negative attitude toward the civilian citizens and our friends in Iraq. However, they are terrorists and our enemy, and those who are in the camps there are threatening our national unity."

Turkey has insisted on its right to pursue the rebels. In its most serious air assault in years, Turkish jets bombed several villages in northern Iraq on Sunday.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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