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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Afghan leader: Cut back on airstrikes

KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for the U.S. and NATO to cut back on airstrikes in the battle against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, saying too many civilians have been killed.

Karzai said that six years after the U.S.-led invasion the Afghan people “cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power.”

“The United States and the coalition forces are not (killing civilians) deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people,” Karzai told the U.S. news program “60 Minutes” for a story scheduled to air Sunday night.

Asked if he wants the use of airstrikes curtailed, Karzai replies, “Absolutely. Oh, yes, in clear words and I want to repeat that, (there are) alternatives to the use of air force.”

At least 700 civilians have died because of insurgency-related violence this year, and about half of those deaths were caused by U.S. or NATO military action, often because of airstrikes hitting civilian homes, according to an Associated Press tally based on numbers from Afghan and Western officials.

The use of airpower is key to the U.S. and NATO fight against insurgents because of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and the sheer size of the country. U.S. and NATO officials say Taliban fighters frequently attack their soldiers from civilian homes that the insurgents have commandeered.

But such deaths incite resentment against U.S. forces and have sparked several anti-U.S. and anti-NATO demonstrations this year. Karzai has pleaded repeatedly with Western forces to do all they can to prevent such deaths, and he broke down in tears during a public speech earlier this year after recounting the deaths of Afghan children from airstrikes.

Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said he was not aware of any formal request by the Afghan government for the U.S. to curtail the use of air power.

Air power “is part of the way that a modern military force conducts operations,” he said. “We take every precaution possible to mitigate the potential for collateral damage and non-combatant casualties.”

Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said he was also not aware of any request to cut back the use of air assets. He said procedures were in place to “ensure that we absolutely minimize the risk to civilians.”

Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 5,200 people have died because of insurgency-related violence, according to the AP count.

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Two NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) – Two NATO soldiers were killed and three others wounded in a battle with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan that also left up to 21 militants dead, the military force and local officials said Friday.

A separate NATO air strike on a Taliban hideout in south-central Uruzgan province also killed 18 militants in the latest insurgency-linked violence to hit the nation, local officials said.

The troops were killed in eastern Kunar province late Thursday when their joint Afghan army and ISAF patrol was ambushed with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the force said.

The patrol fought back and called in air support, a statement from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said.

“Two service members were killed and three others were wounded during a firefight with insurgent forces,” the statement said, adding that the injured were in stable condition after being evacuated for medical treatment.

NATO does not release the nationalities of its casualties, leaving that task to their home countries, but most of the international soldiers deployed in Kunar province are American troopers.

The deaths bring the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year to 188 as the 37-nation ISAF and a separate US-led coalition battle an increasingly bloody insurgency waged by Taliban militants.

Australia confirmed one of its troops was killed by small arms fire while on patrol on Thursday in Uruzgan province.

Australia has some 900 troops serving in Afghanistan, the bulk of which have been deployed to Uruzgan to assist a Dutch-led reconstruction operation.

The deaths came as the US led calls this week for NATO allies to contribute more combat troops and aircraft to help fight the insurgency, as troop casualties undermined support for the mission at home.

The calls were made as NATO defence ministers met and debated the reluctance of some nations to deploy troops to southern Afghanistan, the former stronghold of the Taliban regime and now the focus of insurgent attacks.

There are around 12,000 US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan fighting the insurgency alongside around 40,000 NATO-led forces and about the same number of Afghan soldiers.

ISAF said it had recovered the body of one militant from Thursday’s attack but the mountainous region made it difficult to confirm if more were killed.

Provincial governor Shalizay Didar said 21 militants had died.

But a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said only three militants were killed, while claiming responsibility for the attack on behalf of the group.

Meanwhile, NATO forces bombed the Taliban hideout in Uruzgan overnight, acting on a tip off, the district governor told AFP.

“Eighteen Taliban were killed in the aerial bombing of NATO and their bodies are still there,” governor Fazel Bary told AFP.

In another incident, two roadside bombs struck vehicles in southern Kandahar province on Friday, killing at least one civilian and injuring seven others, the provincial police chief told AFP.

Sayed Aqa Saqib said the militants had planted six bombs along the road in the Panjwayi district. Police discovered and defused four, but two others later exploded, he said.

International military forces helped to remove the extremist Taliban from government in late 2001 and are fighting the insurgency led by the hardline group and joined by other radical factions.

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