Turkish premier says he's 'happy' with Bush's offer on Kurdish rebels

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday promised Turkey's prime minister improved intelligence-sharing and high-level military contacts to counter Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, easing fears of a major Turkish cross-border incursion in the coming days.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after talks with Bush at the White House that Turkey remains prepared to strike into northern Iraq, where the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is launching deadly attacks on Turkey.

"Turkey has the power to defend itself," Erdogan said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. "We are on the point of using our rights emanating from international law," he added, apparently referring to the right of self-defense.

But Erdogan gave no sign that a military operation was imminent and at one point told the audience with a smile that he was "happy" with the results of the discussions with Bush.

Turkey has amassed an estimated 100,000 soldiers on its southeastern border facing Iraq, and its parliament voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize operations against the PKK.

The crisis has put the United States in an uncomfortable position between two allies: Turkey, a partner in NATO, and Iraq, where U.S. troops are fighting to bring about rough stability.

A Turkish incursion could destabilize the one relatively peaceful part of Iraq, the largely Kurdish north, and give Iraq's other neighbors cover to intervene.

Turkish leaders, private analysts and even Bush's former special envoy for dealing with the PKK, retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, have criticized the administration for failing to deal with the problem more urgently.

Bush, in a brief Oval Office appearance with Erdogan, seemed at pains to empathize with Turkey's concerns.

"The PKK is a terrorist organization. They're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq and they're an enemy of the United States," Bush said.

He said he and Erdogan discussed improving intelligence-sharing, as well as a maintaining a three-way military channel between the No. 2 military officers in the U.S. and Turkey, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq. No details were released.

Erdogan said the new steps must "yield results in the shortest time possible."

The steps fell short of Turkish demands, which include immediately closing PKK camps in northern Iraq, cutting off logistical support for the group and capturing the group's leaders.

Nonetheless, in Ankara, Turkey, Hasan Cemal, a columnist for Milliyet newspapers, said late Monday: "Whether or not Turkey moves into Iraq now is no longer the question — that option is gone, except for the limited target attacks we've seen recently. But a large-scale incursion is no longer on the table."

Erdogan is personally reluctant to intervene in northern Iraq, but faces intense public pressure to take action, said Bulent Aliriza, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The PKK, which wants an independent Kurdish state, have killed 30 Turkish soldiers and 15 civilians in the last month.

Erdogan made little secret of his disdain for the Kurdish Regional Government, which runs a semi-autonomous administration in three provinces of northern Iraq. The regional government has said it won't launch operations against the PKK because it would spark a Kurdish civil war.

But Erdogan said Turkey gave refuge to 500,000 Kurdish fighters and their families after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when they rebelled and were attacked by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "I find it quite difficult to understand the situation myself," he said.

He also criticized what he described as Europe's lax attitude toward the PKK. A PKK leader was captured in France, allowed to remain free while on trial and escaped via Austria to Iraq, he said.

Erdogan also criticized a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee resolution passed last month that labeled the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as "genocide." Under heavy pressure from Bush, House Democrats retreated from sending the measure to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

"There is no such thing as genocide. Those who claim it must prove it," Erdogan said.

(Matthew Schofield contributed from Ankara, Turkey.)