By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 -- Several hundred Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq on Tuesday and engaged in clashes with Kurdish guerrillas, Turkish military officials said, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Iraq to tout security gains.
Rice encountered frustration among some Iraqi Kurdish leaders upset that the United States is allowing Turkish forces to operate inside Iraq. Turkey is combating the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which says it is fighting for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and uses northern Iraq as a base.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, a semiautonomous body that administers three predominantly Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq, refused to attend a meeting with Rice on Tuesday.
"The president justified his rejection in that the Iraqi sky is controlled by U.S. forces, and these forces allowed Turkish aircraft to breach Iraqi borders to bomb Kurdish villages and that caused casualties among the Kurdish citizens," said Fouad Hussein, an aide to Barzani, referring to Turkish airstrikes Sunday.
After a stop in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, about 120 miles south of where Turkish troops launched their incursion, Rice told reporters in Baghdad that the United States, Turkey and Iraq have a common interest in "stopping the activities of the PKK" but cautioned that "no one should do anything that threatens to destabilize the north." The group is accused of killing more than 50 Turkish security personnel and civilians in recent months in cross-border raids.
Rice's visit was designed to highlight the overall reduction in Iraq's violence following an increase in U.S. forces this year, as well as to push for political reconciliation. But that message was largely overshadowed by the Turkish incursion in a region considered to be Iraq's most stable.
Standing at Rice's side, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said the Turkish attack was a "limited incursion" taking place "high in the mountains." Officials said the Turkish troops withdrew by the end of Tuesday.
"We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraq's interests and Turkish interests at the same time," Zebari said. "At the same time, we fully understand the legitimate concern Turkey has over the PKK terrorist activities against them," he added, calling the PKK presence in northern Iraq "unacceptable." Both countries have large Kurdish minorities.
In a statement on its Web site, the Turkish military said ground forces based close to the border crossed "a few kilometers" into northern Iraq after spotting a group of guerrillas trying to infiltrate Turkey overnight, according to the Associated Press.
"A heavy blow was inflicted on the group with the land forces stationed in the area," the statement said.
In Washington, Pentagon officials said Monday that the United States is providing Turkey with real-time intelligence to help pinpoint PKK targets in the mountains of northern Iraq, where the group has an estimated 3,000 guerrillas.
Sunday's attacks, Iraqi officials said, killed one woman, while the PKK reported the deaths of two civilians and five fighters.
The U.S. cooperation "was a turning point" in the campaign against the PKK, retired Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu said in a telephone interview from Turkey's capital, Ankara.
After securing the U.S. commitment for increased military cooperation and sharing of intelligence, including imagery from U.S. military flights over Iraq, Turkey's military readied plans for a major air operation against the PKK, Kuloglu said.
The trigger came late Saturday, he said, when the United States provided intelligence on a suspected guerrilla site in northern Iraq. Kuloglu said the 3 1/2 -hour air operation that followed did major damage to PKK bases.
U.S. military commanders in Iraq were not informed about Turkish plans to attack sites in northern Iraq on Sunday until the planes had already crossed the border, defense and diplomatic sources told the AP.
One senior State Department official said Turkey informed the United States of the airstrikes through military channels in Ankara but not until after the first wave of planes was already in the air. "They said it was hot pursuit," the official told the AP. "But our message to them was that they need to make sure we're aware of what they're doing and that we find out about it before the guns start firing."
On Tuesday, Kurdish officials said 500 to 600 Turkish soldiers had reached a relatively barren patch of land a few miles inside Iraq.
"I'm not sure if there are any clashes between the Turkish army and PKK fighters who exist on the borders," said Abdul Ghafar Sorani, a security official in the border town of Soran.
But Abdel Rahman Chaderchi, the PKK's spokesman in northern Iraq, said the party's fighters had clashed with Turkish soldiers in a village called Geli Rash, near the border. "The fighting is still ongoing," Chaderchi said Tuesday evening, adding that he did not know whether there were casualties.
Elsewhere in Iraq, violence continued. In restive Diyala province, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt detonated himself inside a coffee shop in Abara, a Shiite Muslim village, killing 16 people and injuring 24, police said.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to authorize the U.S.-led multinational force to provide security in Iraq for one final year.
"Our national forces have successfully taken over the security functions of the multinational force in Iraq in eight governates," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wrote in a letter attached to the resolution. He said Iraq intended to exercise "full security control" over the rest of the country by the end of 2008. "It is important for Iraq to be treated as an independent and fully sovereign state," he added.
The resolution, which was requested by Iran and drafted by the United States, calls on the council to undertake a review of the U.S.-led force's mandate no later than June 15, 2008, and raises the possibility that it could be terminated before the end of the year. It also authorizes a U.N-established body, the International Advisory and Monitoring Board, to monitor the use of Iraq's oil export revenue.
Knickmeyer reported from Cairo. Staff writers William Branigin in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations, special correspondents Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.