By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 1, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 31 -- Senior Iraqi officials expressed concern Wednesday that the escalating crisis in northern Iraq between Turkey and Kurdish guerrillas could undermine an important regional conference this week on the future of Iraq.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that the tensions should not distract from the main focus of the meeting, set to begin this week in Istanbul, on the far broader security problems of Iraq.
"This meeting is very important -- it should not be hijacked by the current tension and crisis over the PKK terrorist activities in Turkey," he said, referring to the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party by its initials. "It is very important to keep the focus on Iraq and not be diverted."
Relations between Turkey and Iraq have become strained since an attack this month by Kurdish rebels that killed 12 Turkish soldiers near the border with northern Iraq. Turkey has threatened to send ground troops across the border to root out the fighters.
At a news conference with the Iranian foreign minister, Zebari said Iraq was stepping up efforts to contain the PKK. But he said Iraq would not tolerate an invasion.
"If there would be a major military incursion into northern Iraq by Turkish military forces," he said, "this will have consequences for the entire region."
The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, lashed out at the U.S. government on a host of issues, including its recent decision to impose sanctions on Iran and brand the country's al-Quds Force, a branch of the military, as a supporter of terrorism.
Leveling allegations against the Iranian military "is not a good decision in the international arena," Mottaki said. "It is a very strategic mistake."
He also denied U.S. claims that Iran is responsible for fomenting much of the violence in Iraq.
"The U.S. officials and the government of the United States are lying to their people," he said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is sorry for the killing of the people in Iraq, even the American soldiers."
Zebari encouraged Iran to continue talks with the United States, and Mottaki said he was interested in continuing dialogue -- under certain conditions.
"We have said many times that such dialogues must be in the purpose of serving the Iraqi people and for the purpose of the Iraqi people," he said. "We are not looking for dialogue for dialogue's sake."
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo declined to comment on the Iranian minister's remarks. But U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker told reporters last week that it is "very hard for us to say" how Iran is tied to the violence in Iraq.
"What are Iranian intentions?" he said, adding that there are indications the country is exerting influence on militias in Iraq. "I don't know. But certainly it's a question that is very much on my mind as we go forward."
At a news conference Wednesday, British Defense Minister Des Browne said British troops would hand security over to Iraqis in the volatile southern province of Basra by mid-December.
He said "the level of security has been sustained if not improved" in the city of Basra since British troops pulled out of the city center. When asked for figures that showed violence had decreased in the province, he did not cite any, but noted that 80 percent of the violence before the pullback had been directed at British forces.
"I didn't at any stage say that what's presently the situation in Basra was an acceptable level of security," he said. "But we have reached the stage in Basra that it is very clear that if the situation is to improve there, then it is the Iraqis themselves that will improve that situation."
Also Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister-designate Donald Tusk said his country, which has about 900 soldiers stationed in southeastern Iraq, wanted to end its military mission there next year, the Associated Press reported. At least 31 people were killed or found dead in incidents across Iraq on Wednesday, according to an Interior Ministry official.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.