Iranians attack Kurdish rebels in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Iranian soldiers crossed into Iraq on Thursday and attacked several small villages in the northeastern Kurdish region, local officials said.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said he couldn't confirm the attacks, but five Kurdish officials said that troops had infiltrated Iraqi territory and fired on villages.

The Iranian military regularly exchanges artillery and rocket fire with Kurdish rebels who've taken refuge across the border, but Iraqi Kurdish officials worried that Iran's willingness to cross the border raises the possibility of a broader confrontation that would draw the Iraqi government and U.S. forces into an unwanted showdown.

One Kurdish legislator said that if reports of the attacks were true, then Iraq must "stand firmly" against future Iranian encroachments.

Details of the incursion were sparse. Abdul Wahid Gwany, the mayor of Choman, a village 250 miles north of Baghdad, said Iranian troops crossed the border in 10 places and traveled approximately three miles into the mountainous Iraqi region, bombing rural villages in the process. He didn't say how many Iranian troops were involved.

Jamal Ahmed, the police chief of Benjawin, a village a little more than 200 miles north of Baghdad, said the attacks killed some residents.

"We don't know the amount of casualties as the bombing was continuous and so severe," Ahmed said. Gwany said the attacks also killed many cattle and left villages and farms burned to the ground.

Gen. Jabbar Yawr, a spokesman for the Kurdish militia, said Iranian troops have been lobbing artillery at Iraq from across the border since Aug. 16, though Thursday was the first time that Iranian troops crossed the border.

He said that a statement issued by the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is also known as the PKK, claimed credit for the recent assassination of an Iranian intelligence official. Yawr said the Iranian raid was in retaliation.

The United States has declared the PKK to be an international terrorist group.

Ethnic Kurds make up much of semi-autonomous northern Iraq and also populate large swaths of Iran, Turkey and Syria. Kurdish separatist rebels, who have sought to establish their own independent state, have long been at odds with all three countries.

Earlier this year, Turkey, a NATO ally, threatened to invade northern Iraq if the United States and Iraq didn't stop PKK guerrillas from taking shelter there. Turkey said the PKK's battle for an ethnic homeland has claimed the lives of 30,000 people.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, said he hadn't heard about Iranian soldiers crossing the border, but that if they had, "then this is open intervention. Iraq should stand firmly against it."

Hiwa Osman, the spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, said he had heard about Iranian troops crossing the border, but that "details are sketchy."

"It seems something is taking place," he said. "It's definitely seen as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty."

Yawr said PUK sent a letter to Tehran demanding that it rein in its troops. He said representatives from the political party went to Baghdad on Thursday to lobby for the Iraqi government's help.

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ghareeb, the chief commander of the border guards in the Sulaimaniyah region, where some of the attacks occurred, said he has asked U.S.-led coalition forces to help protect the border.

"We told them about this matter and we asked them to stop it immediately," he said.

The U.S. military didn't respond to questions about Ghareeb's assertions.

(Collins, in Baghdad, reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy special correspondent Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah.)