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Bush considering airstrikes against Kurds, official says

Schoolchildren walk past  a Turkish soldier in  Sirnak on the Turkish-Iraqi border Monday. Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Schoolchildren walk past a Turkish soldier in Sirnak on the Turkish-Iraqi border Monday. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is considering airstrikes against the Kurdish rebel group PKK in northern Iraq in an attempt to stave off a Turkish invasion of Iraq to fight the rebels, administration officials said.

President Bush spoke with Turkish President Abdullah Gul by phone Monday in an effort to ease the crisis. According to an official familiar with the conversation, Bush assured the Turkish president that the United States was looking seriously into options beyond diplomacy to stop the attacks coming from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

“It’s not ‘Kumbaya’ time anymore – just talking about trilateral talks is not going to be enough,” the official said.

An ambush over the weekend by 200 PKK guerrillas left 12 Turkish soldiers dead and 8 missing. The attack’s sophistication and scope surprised not only the Turks but also the United States and its Iraqi allies.

On Monday, an AP Television News cameraman saw a convoy of 50 Turkish army vehicles loaded with soldiers and weapons heading from the southeastern town of Sirnak toward Uludere, closer to the border.

The Pentagon has said 60,000 Turkish soldiers have deployed along the border, the Associated Press reported. Last week, Turkey’s parliament authorized the government to send troops across the Iraqi border at any time in pursuit of the PKK.

The north is one of the few relatively calm Iraqi regions, and the U.S. fears an incursion by its ally Turkey could worsen the Iraq war. The U.S.-Turkey alliance is particularly important to the Bush administration in its conduct of the war. About 70 percent of the American military’s air cargo headed to Iraq is shipped through a U.S. air base in southern Turkey.

While the use of U.S. soldiers on the ground to root out the PKK would be the last resort, the United States would be willing to launch airstrikes on PKK targets, the officials said, and has discussed the use of cruise missiles. But airstrikes using manned aircraft may be an easier option because the U.S. controls the air space over Iraq, the officials said.

Another option would be to persuade the Kurdistan Regional Government, which runs that part of Iraq, to order its pesh merga forces to form a cordon preventing the movement of the PKK beyond its mountain camps, said U.S. officials and experts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on Sunday to request his cooperation in dealing with the PKK.