WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is leaving it to Turkey and Iraq to deal with Kurdish fighters using their Iraq haven as a springboard to use in staging cross-border attacks inside Turkey.
The Turks have thousands of soldiers massed on the Iraqi border, apparently poised to cross and take on the Turkish Kurds who have used violence for decades to reinforce their demands for their own Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan area of northern Iraq has been the most stable part of that battle-scarred country virtually since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan is a model for their ethnic peers in Turkey, Iran and Syria, none of whom exercise anything like the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the senior American in northern Iraq, was asked Friday what the Americans planned to do about the Kurdish tinderbox.
"Absolutely nothing," he said.
Mixon said at a Friday briefing that the rebel activity is not his responsibility, he has sent no additional U.S. troops to the border area, and he is not tracking hiding places or logistics activities of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.
Turkey's top military commander said Friday that the Turkish forces will not cross the border before the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visits Washington and speaks with President Bush.
Erdogan and Bush meet at the White House 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 warplanes and helicopters reportedly bombed separatist hideouts within the country's borders.
Speaking by videoconference from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq, Mixon told reporters at the Pentagon that he has not seen Kurdish Iraqi authorities move against the rebels.
"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 Iraq's regional Kurdish 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 Qaeda elsewhere in Iraq.
Few of the roughly 170,000 U.S. military forces in Iraq are along the border with Turkey. Ample air power is available.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested this week that airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces would not 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.