BAGHDAD Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the United States, Iraq and Turkey have a "common interest" in stopping Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, but cautioned against taking any action that could destabilize the region.
Rice's comments came two days after Turkey conducted airstrikes against rebels from the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq. As many as 50 fighter jets were involved in the attack, the biggest against the PKK in years. The planes attacked several villages, killing one woman, Iraqi officials said.
The Turkish army also sent soldiers about 1.5 miles into northern Iraq in an overnight operation on Tuesday, Kurdish officials said. A Turkish official said the troops seeking Kurdish rebels were still in Iraq by midmorning.
Rice made it clear the United States supports efforts to quash any rebel movement, but she said it was a "Turkish decision" to act.
And she suggested that Iraqi, Turkish and U.S. authorities should try to work together against the rebels.
"This is a circumstance in which ... we need an overall comprehensive approach to this problem," Rice said. "No one should do anything that threatens to destabilize the north."
"This was a Turkish decision," Rice said of the Sunday airstrike. "And we have made clear to the Turkish government that we continue to be concerned about anything that could lead to civilian casualties or anything that could destabilize the North."
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, agreed with Rice, saying at their joint news conference that the U.S., Iraq and Turkey share a goal of making sure there is no "PKK terrorist activity," including what have been cross-border attacks against the Turks from Iraqi territory.
Zebari said that Iraq understands what he said were Turkey's "legitimate concerns" about the rebels, who want their own Kurdish state, although the Baghdad government had complained that Ankara didn't notify Iraq of the airstrikes in advance. But Zebari said it's better if Iraq, Turkey and the United States work jointly to come up with a plan to quash the Kurdish rebels.
"We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraqi interests and Turkey's interests," Zebari said.
Rice began an her unannounced visit with a trip to Kirkuk in the oil-rich Kurdish region up north, where the U.S. administration emphasized what it sees as new signs of cooperation and progress. She met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit based in the mixed city and with about two-dozen provincial politicians of all stripes.
"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.
"We see a logjam breaking here," said Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield.
Rice's message to Iraqi leaders sounded familiar: Stop squabbling. But Satterfield said there is a twist.
"She's saying, 'look, see what's been done as a result of your efforts, our efforts, on security, on economics. You guys have gotta catch up," Satterfield said.
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. Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," and control of the area's oil resources and its cultural attachment to Kurdistan have been hotly contested.
Rice met in Baghdad with the United Nation's new special envoy to Iraq, whose first task will be managing competing interests leading up the Kirkuk vote. The United States has long sought such a U.N. role, but the world body moved slowly after the assassination of its top envoy in Baghdad in 2003.
Like President Bush's trip to once-volatile Anbar province in September, Rice's visit was intended to highlight the kind of political accommodations Iraqis are making apart from the central government in Baghdad. Although the Bush administration points to signs that sectarian deadlock is easing in Baghdad, allowing progress on stalled legislation, the government remains hobbled.
Rice's visit was her first since the surprise Anbar trip with Bush, ahead of a report card to Congress on Iraq's progress. The assessment gave disappointing marks to Iraqi political efforts, which remain mired in political squabbling and sectarian maneuvering, and better grades to U.S.-assisted security benchmarks.
Tuesday's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces Bush ordered a year ago.
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.