Iraqi Kurdish leader warns Turkey
Vows to defend his homeland against strikes
IRBIL, Iraq - The most senior leader in Iraq's Kurdish region appeared to raise the stakes in the standoff over northern Iraq yesterday, warning Turkey that the region would defend itself against any cross-border military strike on rebel bases.
The tough line taken by the Kurdish region's president, Massoud Barzani, further stoked concern that a Turkish incursion could ignite a wider cycle of conflict and unrest in one of the few stable corners of Iraq.
Barzani said urgent talks are needed on all sides. But Turkey has declared it is out of patience with escalating attacks by separatist guerrillas who use hideouts in northern Iraq.
As both Baghdad and Washington struggled to avert conflict between two of its key allies in the region, Turkey's prime minister insisted that the camps of Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq must be destroyed and rebel leaders extradited to Turkey for trial.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for more than two decades for autonomy in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast. The conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives.
American officials have suggested the United States and Iraq might engage in joint action against the PKK. But Barzani had stern words directed at Turkey: "We are fully prepared to defend our democratic experience and the dignity of our people and the sanctity of our homeland" against what he termed threatened aggression.
Turkey's Parliament Wednesday gave the government a one-year window in which to launch cross-border offensives against Kurdish rebel strongholds in Iraq.
The vote led to large-scale protests by Iraqi Kurds, calls for restraint by Baghdad and Washington, and uncertainty over Turkey's next move, which has helped push oil prices to record highs.
Bomb blasts, meanwhile, crippled an oil pipeline feeding a refinery near the oil hub of Kirkuk, which many Kurds consider part of their historical homeland. Such attacks, blamed on anti-American insurgents, occur frequently.
Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said Thursday that Baghdad was willing to increase pressure on the PKK, but his comments did not appear to appease Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
"We welcome this as a positive step, but it is an announcement that came late," Erdogan said yesterday in Istanbul. "The PKK camps must be eradicated and the rebel leaders must be extradited. That would satisfy Turkey."
Erdogan said he had told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq that Turkey does not want to be "deceived with promises."
President Jalal Talibani of Iraq, speaking in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, told reporters that the United States would not accept any Turkish military operations in northern Iraq.
Since the first Gulf War, Turkey has been concerned that autonomy for Kurds in northern Iraq would encourage separatist hopes among Turkey's estimated 3 million Kurds. In addition to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, Iran also has a large Kurdish population.
Anger in Turkey over the Kurdish issue was deepened by a debate in the US Congress over whether to label the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide.
Erdogan thanked the Bush administration for trying to block the genocide resolution.
And Turkey has accused Kurdish officials in Iraq of turning a blind eye to the presence of the PKK. But Zebari said Iraq does not have sufficient military forces to push the separatist fighters out of Iraq while battling Al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, and Shi'ite militias.
Barzani, the Kurdish president, said his regional government has not supported the separatist movement. "Kurdistan is not responsible for the war between Turkey and the PKK," he said. "And we have not supported the war or the violence and bloodletting or been dragged into this war."
In violence across Iraq yesterday, at least 16 people were killed or found dead in apparent sectarian slayings.
In the latest of a series of attacks on Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite political party, gunmen killed the organization's leader in a city south of Baghdad.
Mohammed Hashim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council in Iskandariyah, was shot to death as he walked near his home, police said.
Two provincial governors south of Baghdad who were members of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council were killed in past months and members of the Shi'ite Mahdi Army militia, a rival organization, are suspected in the killings.