BAGHDAD — The president of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government refused to meet Tuesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, charging that the United States had given Turkey the "green light" to attack separatist Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani called the attacks "crimes" and said he wouldn't meet with Rice, the first open break between the United States and its allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the few regions of the country that have largely escaped massive sectarian violence.
Turkey has long complained that guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, have been given shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK seeks to form an independent Kurdistan from parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and it enjoys broad support in Kurdish Iraq.
"The Kurdish people are angry with the American administration because protecting the sky of Kurdistan is their responsibility," Barzani said during a news conference Tuesday. "If Turkey had not received a green light from the United States, it would not have been able to commit these crimes. It would not have been able to kill those civilians."
Turkish fighter jets on Sunday bombed reputed PKK positions, killing at least three people, wounding eight and displacing about 300, Kurdish leaders said. The PKK said five of its members were killed and two were injured.
On Tuesday, about 500 Turkish soldiers moved into northern Iraq, occupying the villages of Kaya Retch Binwak, Janarok and Gelly Resh, not far from the Turkish border, according to local border guards. There were no reports of fighting, but Rice's unannounced visit to Baghdad and Kirkuk, a city that's hotly contested between Kurds and Arab Iraqis, spotlighted the growing differences over how to deal with the PKK in northern Iraq.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of Kurdistan's foreign relations department, called the recent developments a low point in relations between Kurds and the United States.
"Morally and legally, they are responsible for providing security to the Iraqi people and protecting the sovereignty of Iraqi borders," Bakir said, referring to the United States.
Rice said Turkey, Iraq and the United States share an interest in stopping the PKK, but she sidestepped questions about U.S. involvement in Turkey's most recent action, saying that launching the airstrikes was Turkey's decision.
"We have made it clear to the Turkish government that we continue to have concerns about anything that leads to innocent civilian casualties or to destabilization of the North," she said during a news conference in Baghdad. "The United States has constantly counseled that we need an overall, comprehensive approach to this problem."
At the same news conference, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, echoed Rice's statement that Iraqis are hoping for stability within their country and with their neighbors. Turkey's concerns about "terrorist" PKK are legitimate, he said, but the country should limit its activities in Iraq.
"We hope to contain it and call for self-restraint, because these operations can go wrong, especially when they are based on wrong information," he said, suggesting that the civilian deaths were based on incorrect intelligence. "There are limits to these kinds of violations."
Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the Kurdish regional government, said Kurdistan doesn't consider itself Turkey's target for now, but if the attacks continue, that could change.
"We are not party to this struggle. What is important to us is the safety of our citizens," he said. "If this targeting of civilians continues by Turkey, and America continues its silence, the equation will become difficult and complex and it will affect our view."
The number of displaced Kurdish families is expected to increase in coming days, said Adnan Mohammed Kadir, Kurdistan's minister of labor and social affairs.
"They have been driven from their homes in the middle of winter," Kadir said. "The homes of some have been destroyed, their cattle and sheep have burned and they were too frightened to stay in their homes. Families are terrified of being targeted."
Violence also struck Tuesday evening in Diyala province. A suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest detonated in a popular cafe north of Baqouba, killing 16 and inuring 24.
Elsewhere, leaders in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf announced a security plan for the Eid al Adha, a holiday to commemorate the end of the Muslim pilgrimage. The plan includes 20,0000 security personnel and checkpoints around the city. Cars will be banned in the oldest parts of the city and in areas expecting high traffic, including the Imam Ali mosque and Wadi al Salam cemetery. The four-day holiday begins Wednesday for Sunni Muslims and Friday for Shiites.
(Gumbrecht, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Baghdad; McClatchy special correspondent Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah. Contributing to this report from Baghdad were Leila Fadel and special correspondent Sahar Issa. Special correspondent Qassem Zein contributed from Najaf.)