ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s leadership will hold off on ordering an offensive against Kurdish guerrilla bases inuntil 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 Ministerplans to travel to Washington on Nov. 5 to meet with in what is widely expected to be the climax of frantic diplomatic activity aimed at averting a major Turkish incursion.
The topcommander 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, 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 .
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.
“Turkey has done all necessary lobbying efforts with countries in the Middle East andand primarily with the United States” ahead of a possible cross-border offensive, he said.
Foreign Ministerwas 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 topcommander in northern Iraq, said Friday it was not the 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 inon 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 Ministersaid. 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, 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.”