US steering clear of Kurdish fight
( AP ) - The U.S. military commander in northern Iraq said Friday he plans to do "absolutely nothing" to counter Kurdish rebels who are staging deadly cross-border attacks into neighboring Turkey.
It was the most blunt assertion yet by an American official in the last few weeks that U.S. forces should not be involved in the fight. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the border crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.
Asked what the U.S. military was planning to do, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said: "Absolutely nothing."
Turkey's top military commander said Friday that Ankara will wait until its prime minister visits Washington before deciding on a cross-border offensive into northern Iraq.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets President Bush in Washington on Nov. 5.
"The armed forces will carry out a cross-border offensive when assigned," private NTV television quoted Gen. Yasar Buyukanit as saying. "Prime Minister Erdogan's visit to the United States is very important, we will wait for his return."
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said the government demanded the extradition of Kurdish rebel leaders based in Iraq's north. Amid talks with a visiting Iraqi delegation, Turkish war planes and helicopters reportedly bombed separatist hideouts within the country's borders.
During a Friday briefing, Mixon said the rebel activity is not his responsibility, that he's sent no additional U.S. troops to the border area and he's not tracking hiding places or logistics activities of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.
He also has not seen Kurdish Iraqi authorities move against the rebels either, Mixon told Pentagon reporters by videoconference from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq.
"I have not seen any overt action ... But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own," he said.
Top Defense Department and State Department officials this week said that Iraq's Kurdish regional government should cut rebel supplies and disrupt rebel movement over the border, adding that Washington is increasingly frustrated by Kurdish inaction.
As Turkey has increased pressure for someone to act, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that U.S. forces are tied up with the fight against insurgents and al-Qaida elsewhere in Iraq.
Few of the roughly 170,000 U.S. military forces in Iraq are along the border with Turkey. But there is ample air power available.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested this week that airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces wouldn't help much because not enough is known about where the rebels are hiding at a given time.
Asked during a NATO meeting in Europe about the prospects of U.S. military strikes, he said: "Without good intelligence, just sending large numbers of troops across the border or dropping bombs doesn't seem to make much sense to me."
Americans also fear that a full-scale battle in the north would destabilize what has been one of the most prosperous and peaceful parts of Iraq in recent years - a region run by Kurds who have some sympathies with the rebels.
Asked if he has detected PKK supply lines running through his area that Iraqi Kurdish authorities could curtail, Mixon said: "That would be speculation ... I don't track the specific locations of the PKK. So you'd have to ask somebody else."
Mixon would not even talk in general about the PKK's fighting abilities. He was asked why such a small group of an estimated few thousand guerrillas is considered so effective, tenacious and threatening to Turkey.
"I have no idea," he said. "You'll have to ask somebody in the Turkish government."
Does he think he has any responsibility to try to avoid a Turkish incursion into the north?
"I have not been given any requirements or any responsibility for that," he said.
But if terrorists are operating in his region, he was asked, why not get involved?
"Let me put it to you very clearly," he answered. The provincial Kurdish authorities have their own Peshmerga militia, Mixon and, "it's their responsibility" in three northern provinces of Iraq.
He said no one has specifically told him to ignore the rebel problem, "but I hadn't been given instructions to do anything about it, either."
If he were ordered to do something, would he have enough U.S. troops?
"That's a hypothetical question," Mixon replied. "I haven't studied it.
"I haven't been given any instructions that would even vaguely resemble what you just mentioned," the general said. "So I don't see any sense in talking about it."
In Washington, Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy responded to Mixon by saying he expected U.S. help.
"We do expect the United States government to use all of the influence they have over the central government and the regional government in the north to deal with this problem," he said.