Rice Visits Kirkuk as Turkish Army Stages Incursion

Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq. i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday. Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty
Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday.

Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday paid an unexpected visit to Kirkuk, even as the Turkish army sent soldiers about 1.5 miles into northern Iraq in a hunt for Kurdish rebels.

Rice met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit and about two dozen provincial politicians of varying backgrounds, emphasizing the need for unity.

"It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," she said at the start of the meeting with the provincial leaders.

Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk — the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields — under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity ahead of a referendum on the area's future.

U.N. Representative Arrives

Rice highlighted that development — although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council — and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.

The U.N. representative, who arrived last month, is aiming to help manage competing interests leading up to the Kirkuk referendum, which is expected in late 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.

Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds to declare independence from Iraq — a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.

Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years. Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament.

Rice's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces he ordered a year ago.

Iraq Violence Decreases

Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.

The Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq represents a new threat, however.

Turkish officials said troops must cross the border to pursue Kurdish rebels who use the border region to attack Turkey.

Turkey sent 300 troops into northern Iraq at about 3 a.m. Tuesday, said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the regional Kurdistan government. He said the region was a deserted mountainous frontier area.

The Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.

It was unclear how long the Turkish soldiers who entered Iraq on Tuesday would stay, but a Turkish government official said they were sent as reinforcements to existing Turkish troops stationed farther inside Iraq.

About 1,200 Turkish military monitors have operated in northern Iraq since 1996 with permission from local authorities. A tank battalion has been stationed at a former airport at the border town of Bamerni and a few other military outposts were scattered in the region. Ankara rotates the troops there.

Asked about a reported clash between the Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels inside Iraq, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said: "From now on, whatever is necessary in the struggle against terrorism, it is being done."

Turkish Incursion Poses Threat

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the incursion "is not acceptable and will lead to complicated problems."

"Iraq understands the threat the PKK represents, one that endangers Turkish security," al Dabbagh said. "But Iraq rejects any Turkish interference in Iraq."

Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government was given no warning about Tuesday's incursion.

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should be careful not to harm civilians who might be living in the area.

On Sunday, Turkey conducted airstrikes against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. As many as 50 fighter jets were involved in the attack, the biggest against the PKK in years.

An Iraqi official said the planes attacked several villages, killing one woman. The rebels said two civilians and five rebels died.

The Iraqi parliament on Monday condemned the bombing, calling it an "outrageous" violation of Iraq's sovereignty. Turkey said Sunday's attack used U.S. intelligence and was carried out with tacit U.S. approval.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.

Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs.

Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Apart from the petrodollars, Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to the area and consider Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish Jerusalem," part of their ancestral homeland.

Rice did not hold a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.

Kurdish leaders also favored a quicker referendum on Kirkuk and resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt the Kurdish rebels.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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