WASHINGTON — President Bush scrambled Monday to avert a full-scale military assault by Turkey against Kurdish rebels inside northern Iraq, urging Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to stop cross border attacks by the separatist group known as the PKK.
Bush also telephoned Turkish President Abdullah Gul to expressed "deep concern" over the killing of Turkish civilians and troops by the PKK and assured him that the United States would press Iraq to move on the group, the White House said.
Bush's efforts to defuse the latest Middle East crisis reflected growing U.S. fears of a major conflict that could unhinge Iraq's Kurdish provinces, which are the most peaceful part of Iraq. The administration has touted the area as a showcase of the war-torn country's political and economic promise.
"This is a diplomatic full-court press," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We want to see an outcome where you have the Turks and the Iraqis working together, and we will do what we can to resolve the issue without a Turkish cross-border incursion."
McCormack said U.S. officials think the Iraqi government needs to take action to ease Turkish concerns. "We are encouraging them to work cooperatively with the Turkish government," he said.
The crisis has been building for weeks. Turkey is reported to have massed tens of thousands of troops, backed by tanks, artillery and combat aircraft, on its border with Iraq in response to an upsurge in PKK attacks on Turkish security forces and civilians.
The situation sharpened dramatically Sunday when PKK rebels killed at least a dozen Turkish troops and claimed to have captured eight others. Turkish officials confirmed that eight soldiers were missing.
Some experts were skeptical about the chance of success of Bush's diplomatic offensive, saying that the isolated mountains in which the PKK maintains bases are beyond the Iraqi government's control and that U.S. troops are stretched too thin to deal with the problem.
Moreover, they said, the semi-autonomous regional government that runs Kurd-dominated northern Iraq is unwilling to provoke the anger among its own people by moving against their ethnic kin from Turkey.
"There is enormous sympathy for the PKK among Iraqi Kurds," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who maintains close ties to Iraq's Kurdish leaders. "There is no desire to have Kurds fighting Kurds."
In an interview last month with McClatchy Newspapers, Jafar Mustafa Ali, the local minister of state for Kurdish military affairs, said the regional government has little interest in curbing PKK members in Iraq.
"If you fight them, they will just get stronger," he said.
At the time, Iran was firing mortar rounds and artillery rounds into northern Iraq in response to what Iranian officials said were raids by a PKK-related group into Iran.
Marc Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, suggested three steps that Iraqi Kurdish authorities could take short of military action to defuse the tensions.
These measures include arresting senior PKK leaders, taking over checkpoints manned by PKK fighters and denouncing the PKK as a terrorist organization, he said.
The Bush administration and Maliki's government had failed to pay sufficient attention to the problem as it festered in recent years, he said, fueling anti-American sentiment in Turkey and public demands for military action to crush the PKK.
"The countdown for a military move has begun," Stephen Solarz, a former Democratic congressman from New York and former lobbyist for Turkey, said in a telephone interview from Istanbul. "We're talking a matter of weeks, not months."
The clashes on Sunday prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior U.S. officials to call Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish leaders and implore then to refrain from making good on threats to invade northern Iraq. The Turkish Parliament last week overwhelmingly authorized a cross-border strike.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Monday that Turkey preferred a diplomatic solution, "but the military option is no doubt a method in the struggle against terrorism."
Rice also called Maliki and Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish regional government, and urged them to move on the PKK, U.S. officials said.
Bush followed up Rice's call with a video teleconference Monday with Maliki in which the pair "agreed to prevent the PKK from using any part of Iraqi territory to plan or carry out terrorist attacks," according to White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
But Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who is a Kurd, indicated during an appearance at a Washington policy institute that the Kurdish regional government would not attack its ethnic kin.
"Don't ask us to start an endless civil war," he said.
The PKK, the Turkish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers Party, is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. It was founded to fight for an independent homeland in southeastern Turkey, contending that the government has oppressed minority Kurds for decades, but its objectives now are unclear.
The Bush administration has angered Turkey, a member of NATO and the United States' closest Muslim ally, by resisting its requests to move militarily against the group for fear of destabilizing northern Iraq.
The region enjoys quasi-democratic rights and a growing economy, powered by significant trade and investments from Turkey.
(Roy Gutman in Washington contributed to this report.)