October 23, 2007
Pg. 1 Kurdish Attacks Prompt Border Troop Buildup
By Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz, Washington Post Staff Writers
The United States has warned Iraqi leaders to take concrete steps to crack down on Kurdish rebels operating against Turkey from northern Iraq, as Turkey yesterday dispatched more troops and heavy weaponry toward the Iraqi border.
President Bush yesterday personally reached out to the leaders of both countries in an effort to prevent an outbreak of open hostilities. Over the past two days, top U.S. officials have made clear to Turkish, Iraqi and Kurdish leaders that Washington fully backs Turkey in the growing crisis, administration sources said. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed and eight others taken captive in an ambush Sunday by Kurdish rebels who crossed from Iraq into Turkey in a brazen nighttime attack.
Iraq now bears responsibility for containing and then dismantling the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist movement from Turkey that maintains camps in northern Iraq, U.S. officials said.
Bush has been drawn into the crisis with Turkey as relations deteriorated over the attacks from Iraq as well as by a recent House committee resolution that denounced as genocide the mass killings of Armenians by Turkey in 1915. A longtime NATO ally, Turkey has provided critical logistical support for U.S. air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Turkey sending a convoy of about 50 military vehicles toward the Iraqi border, President Bush called Turkish President Abdullah Gul to express "deep concern" about the attacks against Turkish soldiers and civilians. He also pledged to work with Turkey and Iraq to "combat" cross-border PKK operations, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
But the United States is also urging Turkey not to make unilateral strikes until Iraq has an chance to deal with the Kurdish rebels, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "From our perspective this is a diplomatic full-court press. We want to see an outcome where you have the Turks and the Iraqis working together and we will do what we can to resolve the issue without a Turkish cross-border incursion," he said.
In conversations Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a "few days," Turkish sources said. But the Turks may not allow much more. "If expected developments do not take place in the next few days, we will have to take care of our own situation," Erdogan said yesterday.
Bush administration officials say the upsurge in PKK attacks in southeastern Turkey over the past few weeks has complicated diplomatic efforts. "It's not just telling the Turks 'restraint, restraint, restraint.' Urging restraint at this stage will fall on deaf ears," a senior U.S. official familiar with the diplomacy said. "Our message has been that we share completely your outrage at the attacks, but be smart about what you do."
Bush also held a videoconference yesterday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after telephone calls from Rice and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to Iraqi Kurdish leaders on Sunday. The United States is not prescribing a specific formula, U.S. officials said, but wants to see Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq to take tough measures, such as securing the borders to prevent guerrilla incursions, interdicting rebel operatives, arresting the group's leaders, or putting Iraqi forces around the PKK camps in the rugged Qandil mountain range.
"Part of the message is that you have to get serious. The Turks are under attack and have shown responsibility. You should, too," the senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The other part of the message to Iraq and the Kurdish regional government is: Why risk it all? Look at your own interests. Why put at risk all the prosperity and security achieved in the Kurdish region by alienating a neighbor?" he added.
The administration is pressing for urgent action, seeking a resolution of the crisis before a regional meeting on Iraq that Turkey is scheduled to host in Istanbul on Nov. 2 and 3, State Department officials said yesterday. In a joint statement with visiting British Foreign Minister David Milliband, Rice said they are proposing a meeting of a tripartite committee -- made of Iraq, Turkey and the United States -- at the November regional meeting to discuss ways to implement an agreement between Iraq and Turkey on combating terrorism.
In a joint statement, Rice and Milliband called on Iraqi and Kurdish regional government authorities to take "immediate steps" to halt PKK operations from Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met on Sunday with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul in Kiev, Ukraine, and urged the Turkish government to show restraint. Gates stressed that the United States is taking steps to work with Turkey to gain better intelligence on the PKK fighters. "The key, as I indicated, is developing intelligence that would enable us to find these people," he later told reporters.
In Washington for talks with U.S. officials, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, warned Turkey that military intervention could invite a wider regional conflagration, leading others, notably Iran, to join in. "Turkish military intervention in Iraq will be a precedent for others to do so. And that is the last thing we need," he said at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.
Salih also said there are no military solutions to the PKK problem: "We were guerrillas ourselves before coming to government in Baghdad and we know how guerrilla warfare is fought. And we'd be talking very difficult terrain along the border." He also noted that Turkey has fought PKK guerrillas at home that its troops have been unable to defeat.
In a statement late yesterday, the PKK said it was ready for "a political solution" with Turkey. The group accused Turkey of violating an earlier cease-fire "and that the PKK used their legal right to defend themselves."
In an interview, PKK spokesman Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi warned that if Turkey "continued their attacks" the PKK would fight back. "We have enough forces from our sons to defend ourselves against any attack that Turkey would implement," he said.
Turkish officials, meanwhile, scattered across Europe and the Middle East yesterday in a flurry of diplomatic meetings. Prime Minister Erdogan traveled to Britain to meet British and Israeli prime ministers, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan flew to Kuwait City for meetings with his Kuwaiti counterpart, and Interior Minister Besir Atalay was scheduled to meet today with his counterparts from Iraq's neighbors, according to a government spokesman.
In new details about the 2 a.m. Sunday raid, Turkish news media reported that a group of about 200 PKK fighters attacked from three sides, ambushing soldiers separated from their infantry unit. The guerrillas then blew up a bridge to hamper Turkish reinforcements. In response, Turkish forces launched a pursuit just over the border into Iraq with combat aircraft attacking "63 targets," according to the Turkish military. Turkey routinely fires artillery barrages into northern Iraq in response to PKK activity and has recently bombed PKK targets. Turkish officials initially said that 17 soldiers had been killed but later revised the total to 12.
Yesterday, protesters in several Turkish cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, staged small demonstrations calling on the government to take action against the PKK. The Turkish parliament voted last Wednesday to authorize the government to conduct cross-border attacks into northern Iraq against PKK operatives, training camps and other targets. Correspondent Molly Moore in Paris, staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.