Turkey wins Iraqi pledge to take action against Kurdish militants

Turkey and Iraq agreed to try to end the presence of a Kurdish rebel group in Iraq, Turkey’s prime minister told a news conference Tuesday, while four more US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq as US troop levels reached an all-time high of about 162,000. “We have reached an agreement to spend all efforts to end the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK in Iraq,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference together with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Erdogan said the leaders signed a memorandum of understanding and agreed to speed up work to finalize a counterterrorism agreement to combat the Kurdish guerrillas who have escalated their attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
“We are in agreement with Turkey on the issue of combating terrorism,” Maliki said. “Iraq does not allow [the PKK] to be present on its territory and will not allow them in the future.”
While reaching agreement on Kurdish rebels, Maliki refused to sign the counterterrorism agreement requested by the Turkish authorities, saying it was not in his power to commit Baghdad to the agreement without first putting it before Parliament and his Cabinet, an Iraqi government official said.
The Turkish and Iraqi interior ministries had been negotiating such a pact, but the official said Maliki was caught off-guard when asked to sign an agreement on Tuesday.
“Maliki offered to sign a memorandum instead, saying that fell within his powers. He told the Turks that signing this agreement would impose commitments that Iraqis might not be able to carry out,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Ankara has boosted troop levels in its southeast region to more than 200,000, many of them along the border with Iraq, to try to prevent PKK rebels crossing into Turkey to attack military and civilian targets.
The head of northern Iraq’s Kurdish administration, Massoud Barzani, has rejected Turkish demands to crack down on the PKK.
The US and the Baghdad governments, alarmed by the Turkish troop buildup along the border, have urged Ankara to avoid any military action that could destabilize Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdish north.
Erdogan and top army generals have refused to rule out military action, though they know this would not achieve the aim of destroying the PKK. Military and political pressure on Erdogan to send troops into Iraq has to some extent subsided since his center-right AK Party won re-election last month.
But with nationalists in the new Parliament and continued PKK attacks on Turkish troops, Erdogan wanted to be seen to deliver a tough message to Maliki in order to deflect charges that the Turkish government was weak on fighting terrorism.
Turkish officials are aware that Maliki is in a weak position to deliver on any pledges since 17 ministers – nearly half his government – have quit or decided to boycott meetings.
 With Maliki on a trip to Turkey and Iran, the secular Iraqi List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi held a news conference in Baghdad to explain why they were boycotting the meetings, in which the embattled prime minister now only has a narrow working majority.
“In February, the List delivered a written list of proposals to the government. Since that time we have not received a reply,” leading Iraqi List lawmaker Iyad Jamal al-Din said.
Washington is growing increasingly impatient with the lack of political progress by Iraq’s deeply divided political parties toward national reconciliation while US troops continue to die in roadside bombings, rocket and mortar attacks and shootings around the capital.
US President George W. Bush has sent nearly 30,000 extra troops to help stabilize Iraq and give Maliki’s Shiite-led government breathing space to reach a political accommodation to end the sectarian violence that has torn the country apart.
Four soldiers were also killed on Monday in Diyala province, where US troops have launched a summer campaign against militants using the area as a staging ground for car-bomb attacks in Baghdad. Their deaths raised the US death toll for the first six days of the month to 21, as thousands of troops battled militants in intense summer heat.
Bush has warned that August will be a bloody month for US forces in Iraq as militants try to influence the debate over the war in Washington, where Democrats in Congress want troops pulled out within months.
A total of 3,682 US soldiers have been killed since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, while the number of US troops in Iraq has temporarily reached the highest level ever as new units arrive to replace those packing up and leaving, the US Defense Department said Tuesday.
The size of the force is nearly 162,000, slightly surpassing the 161,000 troop level for the Iraqi elections in 2005, said department spokesman Bryan Whitman. The number of troops had been at about 155,000 to 159,000 for some time because of the surge ordered by Bush in January.
“There is no change to the level of effort and the combat power that we are projecting into Iraq,” Whitman said. He noted that the force will remain at the 20 combat brigades and their support units sent in the escalation aimed at calming violence in Baghdad.
Troop levels were raised in January 2005 during Iraq’s first elections and then returned to about 138,000 several weeks later. The number spiked later that year at 161,000 as officials sent extra security for the vote on the new Constitution. –

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