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Turkish raid strains U.S.-Kurd ties

American support in strike against PKK rebels threatens relations with key Iraqi allies.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2008

Prepared: Two farmers from the village of Sirya, inIraq's Kurdish north, claim to be former Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. They say they're ready to fight if Turks cross into their area.

Sam Dagher

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Amadiyah, Iraq

Peshmerga Gen. Muhammad Mohsen took down his American flag, folded it up, and placed it in his office corner Sunday, reflecting the growing anger in Iraq's Kurdish north with US support for Turkey's campaign against separatist rebels operating in the region.

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The intermittent offensive against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) reached a crescendo Thursday when ground troops crossed into Iraq in a campaign involving nearly 8,000 soldiers. Officials here say it is Turkey's most significant strike against the rebels in more than 10 years.

Frustration over the Turkish incursion cuts across the spectrum. Many average Iraqi Kurds sympathize with the PKK rebels' aim to form an independent Kurdistan and officials say Turkey's real goal is to destabilize its semiautonomous government, the leaders of which have long been American allies.

"We think the United States is making a big mistake," says General Mohsen, who once led Iraqi Kurdish fighters alongside US forces when they entered the northern city of Mosul during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

On Sunday, eight Turkish soldiers were killed, bringing the death toll among the Turks to 15. Turkey said it killed 112 PKK rebels, which has been denied by a rebel spokesman quoted by Reuters. He said that 47 Turkish soldiers and only two rebels were killed.

Amid the distant sound of occasional explosions on Sunday, Turkish warplanes buzzed over a desolate mountain pass in the village of Sirya in Amadiyah, 15 miles from the Turkish border. Besides vultures hovering over the jagged mountain peaks, Kurdish government forces were the only fighters in the area. A bridge over a gushing creek in the area was reduced to a pile of metal.

Turkish artillery and warplanes are targeting a west-east border belt that extends from Amadiyah in Dohuk Province to the Sidakan area in Arbil Province.

Kurdish anger toward US for providing assistance to Turkey, its NATO ally, in its bombardment of suspected PKK targets has been simmering since last fall. It has led to public outbursts and now it appears to have become more serious, threatening one of the most important partnerships for the US in Iraq at a time when Washington is anxious to translate security gains into more lasting stability.

Adding to the stakes is the fact that US forces, with the help of Iraqi forces dominated by Kurdish contingents, continue to battle Al Qaeda-linked militants and other insurgents in areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk, which border Kurdistan and have significant sectarian and ethnic tension.

The event that unleashed most of the Kurdish anger here was what took place Thursday when about 350 Turkish soldiers rolled out of their barracks inside Iraq at Bamerne, west of Amadiyah, in 13 tanks to join their comrades coming from across the border, according to Mohsen. About 1,200 Turkish soldiers are stationed at Bamerne.