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Iraq tells Turkey to stop pursuing Kurdish rebels over border

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq asked Turkey on Tuesday to stop attacking Kurdish rebel forces sheltering across the border in northern Iraq, as Turkey prepares to extend its internal mandate for the raids.

The Baghdad government’s power over Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region is limited, but the comments are an indication of tensions with Turkey, which has given refuge to Iraq’s fugitive vice president.

The Turkish government on Monday asked parliament to renew the mandate, expiring on October 17, under which it has mounted mostly aerial raids on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Parliament is due to discuss it on Thursday.

“The cabinet objects to this motion, which contradicts the principle of good neighborly relations,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in a statement.

“It rejects the presence of any foreign bases or troops on Iraqi territory and the incursion of any foreign military forces into Iraqi lands on the pretext of hunting down rebels,” he added, complaining of a “violation of Iraqi sovereignty and security”.

He said the cabinet had advised parliament to cancel or refuse to renew any pre-existing agreements that would permit foreign states to enter Iraqi territory.

The past few months have seen some of the heaviest fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK since the PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.

Turkey has sent ground forces into Iraq in pursuit of rebels, most recently in 2008, and has some 1,000 troops based there under an agreement with Iraq dating from the 1990s.

Relations between largely Sunni Muslim Turkey and Iraq, led by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, have soured in the past year over mutual allegations of sectarianism.

Iraq was furious when Turkey refused last month to send back Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death in his absence on charges of running death squads, which he denied.

But the PKK’s hideouts are out of Baghdad’s reach, in the virtually impassable mountainous north of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been autonomous since 1991 and has its own armed forces, who are responsible for defending Iraq’s border with Turkey.

The Kurds, protective of their autonomy, do not allow Iraqi central government forces into their area and have been brought closer to their Turkish neighbor by economic interests.

Nonetheless, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has repeatedly condemned Turkish military operations against the PKK in Iraq and says Turkey’s Kurdish problem can only be solved peacefully.

Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Kevin Liffey