Kurdish rebels offer Turkey a truce

Special to The Times

Kurdish separatists said Monday that they would stop their cross-border attacks on Turkish forces if the Ankara government dropped its threats to launch an offensive on their remote mountain enclaves in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey, stung by a weekend raid by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that left at least 12 of its infantrymen dead, has begun sending troops to the border with Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to prepare for a possible strike. Many fear such a move could destabilize the sole region of Iraq that has remained relatively peaceful since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

“If the Turkish state stops the attacks, this escalating environment of tension will turn into a clash-free one,” said a statement posted on a rebel website by the PKK. “Our movement and people have the strength to defend itself under any condition; however, we prefer to solve the problems by democratic and peaceful ways rather than armed struggle.”

Last week, the Turkish parliament approved incursions into Iraq to root out the Kurdish rebels. By Monday night, thousands of Turkish troops were believed to be massed along the border, as Ankara confirmed that eight soldiers also went missing in the deadly PKK ambush on Sunday. The PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey consider a terrorist group, said it had seized them and moved them to a safe place. The PKK-linked Firat news agency reported shelling around the Zakho region of Iraq on Monday evening.

In an attempt to stave off a regional crisis, President Bush took the unusual step of calling the leaders of both Turkey and Iraq on Monday, urging a joint effort against terrorist groups. The calls came a day after an appeal to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Turkey has indicated it would give diplomatic efforts a chance to work before launching a major incursion.

A senior Bush administration official involved in talks with the Turkish government said U.S. diplomatic efforts were focused on pressuring Kurdish regional officials to stop PKK cells from operating freely in the semiautonomous region of northern Iraq. Bush spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki by video, and the two agreed to try to restrain the PKK, said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

Johndroe said Maliki agreed with Bush that “Turkey should have no doubt about our mutual commitment to end all terrorist activity from Iraqi soil.”

At the same time, the Iraqi government and the ruling Kurdish parties in the northern provinces of Sulaymaniya, Dahuk and Irbil have warned Turkey not to cross the border. In his call to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Bush expressed “deep concern” about PKK attacks and promised continued U.S. pressure on Iraq to stop the group from operating in northern Iraq.

Bush, in his conversation with Gul, also reaffirmed his opposition to a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the early 20th century, Johndroe said. U.S. officials have expressed concern that Turkish anger over the genocide resolution could influence Turkey’s decision on whether to launch a cross-border attack into northern Iraq.

The U.S. military has continued to insist it will not get involved in Iraqi Kurdistan, where it currently has no combat troops. A senior military official in Baghdad said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has not been directly involved in talks with the Turks or the Kurds.

“There’s nothing going on with us up there,” said the military official, discussing U.S. strategy only on condition of anonymity. “We do have our hands full with what we are doing in all of our other areas of operation.”

At the same time, a new flurry of diplomatic initiatives is about to begin. Iraqi officials said Turkey’s foreign minister was set to visit Baghdad today and was due to meet with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, and that a delegation including Zebari could head to Turkey by the end of the week. A meeting of regional foreign ministers on Iraq is to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, on Nov. 2. U.S. Embassy officials were meeting with Kurdish parliament members Monday, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, huddled with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

A Western advisor to the Iraqi government said the Kurdish regional government could seal off the mountains and borders, where the PKK moves freely. “They are letting anyone who wants have access to that area. . . . They can cordon it off. They can isolate them and do a better job of enforcing the border,” the advisor said.

The PKK, which rose up in the 1980s in reaction to discrimination against Turkey’s Kurdish population, carved out bases in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s. Over the years, it has fought intermittent battles with both main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the two parties have allowed the PKK and its sister movement, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, to operate in the frontier region bordering Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish regional government is believed to offer no backing to the PKK, but does little to limit the group’s activities in the rugged borderlands.

In the Qandil mountain range, PKK fighters, clad in olive fatigues and traditional baggy pants, man checkpoints. The terrain is virtually a state within a state. Kurds from Europe have visited to show their support for the nationalist movement. Occasionally, Iraqi Kurds have joined the fight.

Iraq’s Kurds suspect Ankara is flexing its military might in part because it wants to weaken Iraqi Kurdistan and exert pressure on the Kurds over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The city is home to a Turkmen population, as well as Arabs and Kurds. Turkey has warned the city should not be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan.

With a November deadline for a referendum on its future about to pass, Kirkuk’s future remains unsettled. “The aim is to really just weaken and decrease the Kurdish region and make it weaker and smaller,” said Kurdish parliament member Mahmoud Othman. “They are not aiming at the PKK.”

Many Iraqi Kurds, haunted by their tragic history under Saddam Hussein, worry that the country’s Arab-led central government will try to roll back their hard-won freedoms in the north, be it their ability to negotiate oil contracts independently of Baghdad or to celebrate Kurdish culture. They fear that the issue of the PKK is pretext for an effort to erode their privileges.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest the Kurds have come to the dream of a nation state, which they were first offered at the end of World War I, only to be thwarted. The idea gained new life after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi Kurds gained de facto autonomy under the protection of U.S.-led forces barring Iraqi warplanes from Kurdish airspace.

The flourishing Kurdish region has unnerved Turkey, Iran and Syria, which enjoy uneasy relations with their own Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, calls for action against the PKK mounted. Thousands of Turks protested in cities across the country Monday for a second day. Morning TV talk shows, which normally feature light fare, were solemn. Most of the guests were relatives of slain soldiers, and broadcasters wore black. TV stations canceled entertainment programs for the week; other public entertainment was similarly canceled.

“Eyes on the government!” declared a leading daily, Milliyet, in a front-page banner headline on a black background.

Times staff writer Parker reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Borg from Istanbul. Special correspondent Asso Ahmed reported from Dahuk, Iraq. Times staff writers Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Tracy Wilkinson in Rome and Peter Spiegel, Paul Richter and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.