Iraq promises Turkey it will curb Kurdish rebels

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq promised on Tuesday to close the offices of Kurdish rebels and work to prevent them launching attacks on Turkey, hoping to head off a threatened invasion to crush them by Turkish troops massed on the border.

But the government gave few details of how it could stop the rebels mounting cross-border raids from their remote mountain hideaways. And while Turkey said it would give diplomacy a chance, the publication of photographs said to show captured Turkish soldiers added to pressure on Ankara to act.

“The PKK is a terrorist organization and we have taken a decision to shut down their offices and not allow them to operate on Iraqi soil,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said.

“We will also work on limiting their terrorist activities, which are threatening Iraq and Turkey,” Maliki said after crisis talks in Baghdad with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

Analysts say an effective Iraqi crackdown on the rebels would need to involve U.S. forces in Iraq, something Washington has so far been reluctant to agree to.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara was allowing time for a diplomatic solution, but reminded Iraq that Turkey’s parliament had given the go-ahead for a military incursion at any time unless rebel attacks were halted.

“Right now we are in a waiting stance but Iraq should know we can use the mandate for a cross-border operation at any time,” Erdogan told a joint news conference in London after talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

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He later ratcheted up pressure by telling an investors’ conference that Turkey might impose sanctions on exports to Iraq. Turkish exports to Iraq were worth $2.6 billion in 2006.

PKK separatists, operating from northern Iraq, killed a dozen Turkish soldiers in weekend fighting.

The PKK said it also captured eight soldiers. Turkey has denied soldiers were captured but says eight are missing.

A pro-Kurdish television station with links to the PKK broadcast footage of eight men it said were the prisoners.

Satellite ROJ television, based in Denmark but widely seen by Kurds in Turkey, showed the men, dressed in military camouflage, standing somberly but apparently uninjured in front of a rocky hillside.

A news agency with close links to the rebels also published what it said were photographs of the captives on Tuesday.

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“The pictures show their health condition is pretty good,” said the Firat news agency, based in western Europe.

With feelings running high in Turkey, and anti-PKK protests in several towns, the broadcasting watchdog banned news reports on the deaths of the 12 soldiers.

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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said PKK attacks on Turkey would not be tolerated.

“We have given the PKK the option to leave or disarm. We care for every drop of Turkish blood like we care for every drop of Iraqi blood,” he said after talks with Babacan.

But a senior U.S. official said statements condemning the rebels were not good enough, and Iraq’s Kurdish authority had to match its rhetoric with concrete action.

“Action is required here and it has been too long without meaningful action directed against this terrorist group,” David Satterfield, the U.S. coordinator for Iraq and senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in Washington.

“This is not anything that the Kurdish leadership is not aware of from our own voice, we are not pleased with the lack of action undertaken against the PKK,” he told reporters.

The United States has so far been reluctant to attack PKK rebels, fearing this could damage ties with Iraqi Kurds and destabilize the Kurdish region, the only area of Iraq to see stability and prosperity since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Turkey estimates 3,000 PKK rebels are based in Iraq. Ankara believes U.S. forces in Iraq have the capability of capturing PKK leaders hiding in the Qandil mountains, shutting down their camps and cutting off supply routes and logistical support.

Turkey has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, F-16 fighter jets and helicopter gunships, along its border in preparation for a possible attack on rebel bases.

Washington has urged NATO member Turkey to refrain from a military push into Iraq. “We don’t believe a cross-border operation would serve the interests of any party, Kurdish, Iraqi or Turkish,” Satterfield said.

Rice and Britain’s visiting foreign secretary, David Miliband, said they had proposed a meeting in Istanbul next month of officials from the United States, Turkey and Iraq to discuss how to stop PKK attacks.

Additional reporting by Evren Mesci and Gareth Jones in Ankara, Adrian Croft in London and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington