Iraqi Officials Worry Kurd-Turkish Tensions Could Disrupt Security Meeting

( LatWp ) - Senior Iraqi officials expressed concern Wednesday that the escalating crisis in northern Iraq between Turkey and Kurdish guerrillas could undermine an important regional conference this week on the future of Iraq.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that the tensions should not distract from the main focus of the meeting, set to begin this week in Istanbul, on the far broader security problems of Iraq.

"This meeting is very important - it should not be hijacked by the current tension and crisis over the PKK terrorist activities in Turkey," he said, referring to the rebel group, also known as the Kurdistan Workers Party. "It is very important to keep the focus on Iraq and not be diverted."

Relations between Turkey and Iraq have become strained since an attack earlier this month by the Kurdish rebels killed 12 Turkish soldiers near the border with northern Iraq. Turkey has threatened to send ground troops across the border to root out the fighters.

Speaking at a news conference with the Iranian foreign minister, Zebari said Iraq was stepping up its efforts to contain the PKK. But he said Iraq would not tolerate an invasion.

"If there would be a serious military incursion into Iraq by Turkish military forces," he said, "this will have consequences for the entire region."

The Iranian foreign minister, Manoshehar Mottaqi, lashed out at the U.S. government on a host of issues, including its recent decision to impose sanctions on Iran and brand the country's Quds Force, a branch of the military, as a supporter of terrorism.

Leveling allegations against the Iranian military "is not a good decision in the international arena," Mottaqi said. "It is a very strategic mistake."

He also denied American claims that Iran is responsible for fomenting much of the violence in Iraq.

"The U.S. officials and the government of the United States are lying to their people," he said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is sorry for the killing of the people in Iraq, even the American soldiers."

He added: "We deny all those allegations, but we understand why the U.S. government is trying to raise these allegations: because of the defeating of their original policies."

Zebari encouraged Iran to continue talks with the United States, and Mottaqi said he was interested in continuing dialogue - under certain conditions.

"We are not looking for dialogue for dialogue's sake," he said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo declined to comment on the Iranian minister's remarks. But U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters last week that it is "very hard for us to say" how Iran is tied to the violence in Iraq.

"What are Iranian intentions?" he said, before adding that there are indications the country is exerting influence on militias in Iraq. "I don't know. But certainly it's a question that is very much on my mind as we go forward."

At a news conference Wednesday, British Defense Minister Des Browne said that British troops would hand security over to Iraqis in the volatile southern oil-rich province of Basra by mid-December.

He said "the level of security has been sustained if not improved" in Basra since British troops pulled out of the city center.

When asked to present figures that showed violence had decreased in the province, he did not cite any, but noted that 80 percent of attacks before the pullback had been directed at British forces.

"I didn't say it was an acceptable level of security," he said. "But we have reached the stage in Basra that it is very clear that if the situation is to improve there, then it is the Iraqis themselves that will improve that situation."

Also on Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister-designate Donald Tusk said his country, which has about 900 soldiers stationed in southeast Iraq, wanted to end its military mission there next year, the Associated Press reported.

Violence continued to convulse Iraq on Wednesday, with at least 31 people killed or found dead in separate incidents across the country, according to an Interior Ministry official.

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