Turkey’s leadership will hold off on ordering an offensive against Kurdish guerrilla bases

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s leadership will hold off on ordering an offensive against Kurdish guerrilla bases in northern Iraq until the prime minister visits Washington early next month, the military chief said Friday.

The country’s civilian leaders, meanwhile, said they were not satisfied with proposals from Iraq’s U.S.-backed government for dealing with Turkish Kurd separatist fighters who take shelter across the border.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to travel to Washington on Nov. 5 to meet with President Bush in what is widely expected to be the climax of frantic diplomatic activity aimed at averting a major Turkish incursion.

The top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq said he plans to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels who are staging deadly cross-border attacks into neighboring Turkey. It was the most blunt assertion yet by an American official in the last few weeks that U.S. forces should not be involved in the fight.

Military momentum and public calls for action are building in Turkey, fueled by rebel attacks that have killed dozens this month. Turkish aircraft reportedly bombed more suspected rebel hideouts inside Turkey on Friday, and big crowds gathered across the nation this week demanding a crackdown.

A military campaign in northern Iraq worries Washington because it could upset one of the few relatively tranquil areas in Iraq. It also would put the U.S. in an awkward position between key allies: NATO member Turkey on one side and the Baghdad government and the north’s self-governing Iraqi Kurds on the other.

At the same, Turkish leaders have been reluctant to send the army across the mountainous border, fearing it could get bogged down in a prolonged and perhaps inconclusive conflict while suffering damage to its international alliances. Previous incursions failed to quell the PKK.

“The armed forces will carry out a cross-border offensive when assigned,” private NTV television quoted the military chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, as saying. “Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to the United States is very important; we will wait for his return.”

For months, Turkey has repeatedly demanded more help from the United States and Iraq in its fight against the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The group, which has been fighting for autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey since 1984, is labeled a terrorist group by Washington and the European Union.

Erdogan is likely to repeat appeals for a crackdown in northern Iraq when he talks with Bush, whose administration has been preoccupied with trying to curb violence and political chaos elsewhere in Iraq.

But there is a strong sense among Turks that any assurances of action from Washington will amount to little, and public demands are growing for swift, forceful action against the PKK. The government has said the U.S. and Iraq must act quickly if they want to forestall an incursion.

“We will go to the United States on Nov. 5 and we will openly talk about these issues with the president,” Erdogan said on returning from a trip to Romania.

“Turkey has done all necessary lobbying efforts with countries in the Middle East and European Union countries and primarily with the United States” ahead of a possible cross-border offensive, he said.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan was scheduled to fly to Iran on Saturday to discuss the crisis.

The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the border crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, said Friday it was not the U.S. military’s responsibility to act against PKK rebels operating from the region. He said he had sent no additional American troops to the border area and was not tracking hiding places or supply activities of PKK guerrillas.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq, Mixon also said he had not seen Iraqi Kurd authorities move against the rebels.

“I have not seen any overt action,” he said. “But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own.”

Turkey’s government said it was disappointed with an Iraqi delegation, including the defense minister, that held meetings in Ankara on Friday to try to defuse the crisis. The Iraqis suggested reinforcing border posts and setting up new ones to prevent illegal crossings and reviving a negotiation process among Iraq, Turkey and the U.S. that stalled earlier this year.

The Iraqis also pledged to do everything possible to help free eight Turkish soldiers who were allegedly captured by guerrillas in an ambush Sunday if they were being held in Iraq.

“The Iraqi side is approaching the issue with good will, but we have seen that the Iraqi delegation came to us with ideas that would take time to implement,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Turkey wants “urgent and determined” steps from Iraq, it said.

Turkey also is demanding the extradition of Kurdish rebel leaders based in Iraq’s north in order to “finish off the group,” Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said. CNN-Turk television, citing unidentified Iraqi officials, said Turkey asked for the extradition of 153 PKK members.

The CNN-Turk report also said the Iraqi delegation claimed Iraq’s government could hand over at least 18 PKK members. Iraqi leaders have said publicly that they don’t have the ability to go after Kurdish rebel leaders hiding in remote mountainous areas.

Any Iraqi action against the PKK would require cooperation from the north’s Iraqi Kurd administration, which is unlikely to move forcefully against its ethnic brethren from Turkey. Iraqi Kurds suspect the Turks want to cross the border to curb Kurdish separatist aspirations for oil-rich northern Iraq, fearing that will further encourage rebellious Kurds in Turkey.

“The PKK is not a licensed party with known offices and officials in the north of Iraq,” said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the autonomous Kurdish regional government. “I do not know how we are supposed to arrest people who are unknown to us. They might be situated in mountainous area near the border or they might be in Turkey itself.”

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US steering clear of Kurdish fight

WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq said Friday he plans to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels who are staging deadly cross-border attacks into neighboring Turkey.

It was the most blunt assertion yet by an American official in the last few weeks that U.S. forces should not be involved in the fight. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the border crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported Turkish airstrikes on suspected rebel positions Friday and Ankara has threatened a large-scale offensive into Iraq if U.S. and Iraqi authorities don’t stop the rebels. On Friday, Iraq and Turkish officials held the latest in a series of diplomatic meetings aimed at ending the standoff.

Asked what the U.S. military was planning to do, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said: “Absolutely nothing.”

Mixon said it’s not his responsibility, that he’s sent no additional U.S. troops to the border area and he’s not tracking hiding places or logistics activities of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.

He also has not seen Kurdish Iraqi authorities move against the rebels either, Mixon told Pentagon reporters by videoconference from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq.

“I have not seen any overt action … But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own,” he said.

Top Defense Department and State Department officials this week said that Iraq’s Kurdish regional government should cut rebel supplies and disrupt rebel movement over the border, adding that Washington is increasingly frustrated by Kurdish inaction.

As Turkey has increased pressure for someone to act, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that U.S. forces are tied up with the fight against insurgents and al-Qaida elsewhere in Iraq.

Few of the roughly 170,000 U.S. military forces in Iraq are along the border with Turkey. But there is ample air power available.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested this week that airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces wouldn’t help much because not enough is known about where the rebels are hiding at a given time.

Asked during a NATO meeting in Europe about the prospects of U.S. military strikes, he said: “Without good intelligence, just sending large numbers of troops across the border or dropping bombs doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.”

Americans also fear that a full-scale battle in the north would destabilize what has been one of the most prosperous and peaceful parts of Iraq in recent years — a region run by Kurds who have some sympathies with the rebels.

Asked if he has detected PKK supply lines running through his area that Iraqi Kurdish authorities could curtail, Mixon said: “That would be speculation … I don’t track the specific locations of the PKK. So you’d have to ask somebody else.”

Mixon would not even talk in general about the PKK’s fighting abilities. He was asked why such a small group of an estimated few thousand guerrillas is considered so effective, tenacious and threatening to Turkey.

“I have no idea,” he said. “You’ll have to ask somebody in the Turkish government.”

Does he think he has any responsibility to try to avoid a Turkish incursion into the north?

“I have not been given any requirements or any responsibility for that,” he said.

But if terrorists are operating in his region, he was asked, why not get involved?

“Let me put it to you very clearly,” he answered. The provincial Kurdish authorities have their own Peshmerga militia, Mixon and, “it’s their responsibility” in three northern provinces of Iraq.

He said no one has specifically told him to ignore the rebel problem, “but I hadn’t been given instructions to do anything about it, either.”

If he were ordered to do something, would he have enough U.S. troops?

“That’s a hypothetical question,” Mixon replied. “I haven’t studied it.

“I haven’t been given any instructions that would even vaguely resemble what you just mentioned,” the general said. “So I don’t see any sense in talking about it.”

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Turkish planes bomb Kurdish rebels

(CNN) — Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships have been bombing Kurdish separatist positions in Turkey along the Iraqi-Turkish frontier amid continuing diplomatic efforts to avert a major cross-border incursion by Turkish military forces.

CNN Turk, citing Turkish government and military sources, reported the activity and said it had been taking place since Sunday.

The Dogan News Agency also told CNN that aerial strikes had been going on for days, with several F-16 warplanes loaded with bombs taking off from an air base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Anadolu news agency reported that aircraft-backed “counter-terrorism operations” were “under way” in southeastern Turkey.

Public pressure is mounting in Turkey for the government to authorise a major strike against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters accused of mounting attacks against Turkish forces and civilians from bases across the border in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Thousands of mourners took to the streets Tuesday for the funerals of 12 soldiers killed in an ambush Sunday.

Meanwhile a Denmark-based Kurdish TV station, Roj TV, broadcast footage it claimed showed eight troops captured by the PKK in the same attack. The film showed eight men standing against a PKK flag with mountains in the background.

The Web site of PKK’s military wing quoted a commander who blamed Erdogan himself for the deaths of the soldiers and “the POWs that we now have.”

Turkey’s military has confirmed that eight soldiers are missing but not reports that they were taken hostage.

Turkey has repeatedly called on Iraq and the U.S. to crackdown on PKK operations within Iraqi territory. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.

But with tens of thousands of troops in place along Iraq’s northern frontier, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to London on Tuesday that cross-border raids targeting the PKK could be launched “at any time” — and warned Turkey could not “wait forever” for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reiterated an Iraqi pledge to shut down PKK offices in the north of the country and said Iraq would not allow its territory to be used as a “launch pad” for attacks on Turkey.

“The government will do its best in order to limit the PKK and its terrorist activities that are a threat to Iraq just like it is a threat to Turkey,” al-Maliki said, following a visit to Baghdad on Tuesday by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq called on the PKK to abandon its armed struggle.

“The current problems should be solved through political and diplomatic methods,” the statement urged.

“It is necessary to stop using other methods, which are useless, and we demand that the PKK remain committed to the cease fire and not resort to armed operations.”

But Babacan, speaking in Baghdad after meetings with Iraqi leaders, said: “We need more than words. We said that preventing the PKK from using Iraqi soil, an end to logistical support and all PKK activities inside Iraq and closing of its camps are needed. We also said its leaders need to be arrested and extradited to Turkey.”

Babacan also rejected reports of a unilateral PKK cease-fire, saying that a cease-fire was something that could only be agreed “between two countries or two militaries, and not with a terrorist organization.”

The Iraqi central government and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government are concerned that cross-border action would violate Iraq’s territorial integrity and plunge a region that has escaped the worst of the four-year-old Iraq war into conflict.

The U.S. fears Turkish strikes against the PKK could destabilize the American-backed government in Baghdad and jeopardize supply lines for its 160,000-plus troops in Iraq. Washington has launched a major diplomatic push to persuade Iraq to move against the PKK and to keep Turkey — a NATO ally — from launching an attack.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a joint statement with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, called for a conference to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, next month to discuss diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

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