Maliki can't stop PKK attacks, officials say

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Iraq on Wednesday as tensions remain high between the two countries over Turkey's allegations that Kurdish rebels have taken refuge in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

In Baghdad, politicians acknowledged that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki lacked the political and military muscle needed to fulfill his pledge to crack down on rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who last week killed 12 Turkish soldiers and captured eight in an ambush in Turkey.

Iraqi Kurdish officials indicated that they were unlikely to help in any crackdown, with the regional government's spokesman denying that there are PKK bases in northern Iraq.

"We believe that the statements of Mr. Maliki about closing the centers of the PKK don't apply to us because we do not have any centers," the spokesman, Jamal Abdullah, said.

"If Mr. Maliki knows about any centers of the PKK in areas under the control of the central government, let him close these centers and we will encourage and support him. But in areas under our control, there is not a single center."

A PKK spokesman said that the Turkish planes attacked several targets near the town of Mergsur, about 90 miles north of Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's capital. No PKK forces were in the area at the time, said the spokesman, Abdul Rahman al Chadrachi.

Chadrachi, who was reached by phone at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Kandil Mountains, also said that PKK rebels had clashed with Turkish forces in Turkey, but provided no details except to say that there were no PKK casualties.

Wednesday's raids were the first time Turkey has sent planes into Iraqi airspace since its parliament last week authorized an invasion of Iraq to stop PKK attacks, which have claimed hundreds of lives in Turkey.

The raids came a day after Maliki sought to defuse tensions by publicly calling the PKK as a terrorist organization and banning it from operating in Iraq.

But politicians said that Maliki has no means to enforce the ban in Iraq's Kurdish region, which operates virtually as an independent country, flying its own flag and signing its own deals with foreign investors. In recent interviews with McClatchy Newspapers, regional officials have said that they have little interest in tangling with the PKK.

"He (Maliki) really can't do anything about it," said Mahmud Ali Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament. "I think it's just words he's using to satisfy the Turks. He hasn't thought about how he's going to implement it."

Othman said he believed that Maliki's ban on the PKK will only create tension between Iraq's central government and the Kurdish region. "It will create problems," Othman said. "It was a mistake to give promises when, really, he can't do anything."

The spokesman for the Kurdish region's security force, the peshmerga militia, emphasized that local Kurdish officials, not the government in Baghdad, would decide whether to go after the PKK.

"The peshmerga gets its orders from the presidency of the Kurdistan region, not the Iraqi minister of defense," Maj. Gen. Jabbar Yawir said. He rejected placing the regional army under the direct command of the central government.

He said peshmerga troops, who are now equipped with weapons from Saddam Hussein's vast arms depots, have massed near the Turkish border to repulse any Turkish incursion, but that Kurdish officials believe a full-scale invasion was unlikely.

There's little incentive for political leaders in Kurdistan to take on the PKK, a Kurdish group seeking to gain political control over vast stretches of territory in eastern Turkey that Kurds claim as part of their historical homeland. Kurdish nationalists also claim stretches of Iran and Syria.

Iraq's Kurdish region is often held up as the only part of Iraq that's made economic strides and enjoys relative peace. A battle to dislodge PKK guerrillas almost certainly would disrupt that.

Abdullah, the regional government spokesman, said that any effort to remove PKK sympathizers in the areas should be done by "dialogue and negotiation."

"Violence and force is not useful," he said.

(Calvan, a reporter for The Sacramento Bee, reported from Baghdad; McClatchy special correspondent Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad.)