Iraq's prime minister pledges to take on Kurdish rebels attacking Turkey

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Iraq should not be a base for attacks against neighbors," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Iraq promised Saturday to work with its neighbors and the U.S. to combat Kurdish guerrillas who have attacked Turkey from hide-outs in the north. The border crisis overshadowed Iraq's other problems at an international conference on the country's future.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acted as a buffer and go-between for Turkey, an important NATO ally, and the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad. She sought to stave off what the Bush administration fears could become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, now in its fifth year.

"Iraq should not be a base for attacks against neighbors," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told delegates at the meeting hosted by Turkey. "We will cooperate with our neighbors in defeating this threat."

The deaths of more than 40 people over the past month have pushed Turkey to threaten an offensive across the border unless Iraq and the U.S. can neutralize the Kurdistan Workers Party rebels, known by the initials PKK.

Turkey's military chief has said his country will not make a final decision until after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with President Bush on Monday in Washington. The rebel issue is considered a political watershed for Erdogan, and many Turks assume he intends to go ahead with an attack regardless.

"I am expecting that this trip will result with the United States ... taking solid steps," Erdogan said. The prime minister said the talks will focus on "PKK terrorism."

Although the Bush administration is urging restraint, the American ambassador in Iraq told reporters that the U.S. cannot tell Turkey what to do. "The Turks are not likely to feel they need to seek our permission. They are a sovereign state," Ryan Crocker said.

Rice met separately with foreign ministers from Iraq and Turkey on the sidelines of the conference, even as Turkish troops massed on the border.

The Turks "are understandably concerned about the continuing terrorist attack," Rice said. "They are understandably concerned that it doesn't appear that anyone has been able to stop the PKK. But I do think we made very clear our commitment that we really do consider this a problem for us as well and that therefore we are going to have to find a way to resolve it."

The conference did not include a leader of the regional government that runs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq as a nearly autonomous nation-state. That government has perhaps the best chance to control the rebels and avert a Turkish attack.

The Baghdad government lacks the forces and political influence to do much about the PKK. Turkey says the Kurdish government, which officially answers to Baghdad but refuses to fly the Iraqi flag, sympathizes with and may protect the rebels.

A spokesman for the Baghdad government, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Iraq would act to take PKK members into custody. "They will be arrested, and any threat to Iraq will be treated as per Iraqi laws," he said. Such action would depend heavily on the assistance of Iraqi Kurds.

The United States has called the regional government "inactive" against the PKK and demanded, to little effect, that it crack down.

During the conference, Iraqi authorities closed the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution party in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah. The organization allegedly has close ties to PKK guerrillas and Turkey has sought the party's closure. Earlier Saturday, security forces first shut the party's office in nearby Irbil. Faeq Goolpie, the party's head, told The Associated Press by telephone that the organization "has no connections with the PKK."

The international conference included about two dozen nations and organizations pledged to provide economic and political support to the Iraqi government.

In a final statement, participants said they supported Iraq's attempts to fight terrorism, "including all efforts to prevent Iraqi territory from being used as a base for terrorism against neighboring countries."

The statement did not mention the PKK. It did say Iraq and neighboring countries should better cooperate "to control their common borders and prevent all kinds of illicit trafficking, including financial, logistical and all other support for terrorists and terrorist organizations."

The conference's guest list included Iran and Syria, each blamed by the U.S. for further instability and violence in Iraq.

Rice sat across from Iran's foreign minister at an opening dinner Friday night. But the two had no private meeting, as Iraq and many other Mideast countries had hoped for. Rice did speak briefly on Saturday with Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, Crocker said.

Crocker also said he has not given up on more U.S.-Iranian talks about Iraq. He expects he probably will have another meeting with the Iranians at some point.

In addition to Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for "continuous engagement" to address the border issues. "We recognize Turkey's security concerns," he told delegates at the meeting.

Until now, Iraq's border with Turkey was not considered much of a problem for U.S. forces or the fragile government in Baghdad. That changed over the past month with an onslaught of attacks by the Kurdish rebels.

Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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