IMAGE: TURKISH SOLDIERS NEAR BORDER
Burhan Ozbilici  /  AP
Turkish commandos and pro-government militias head toward Turkey's border with Iraq on Oct. 10.
updated 10/19/2007 2:24:10 PM ET 2007-10-19T18:24:10

Kurds in northern Iraq warned on Friday that they will defend themselves against any Turkish incursion, and Iraqi leaders called on Ankara to engage in dialogue instead of threats.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, urged Turkey to hold direct talks with his regional government but vowed to fight "any aggression."

Turkish officials, who have long battled Kurdish separatist sentiment at home, have balked at such talks with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq.

The strong comments from Iraq's senior Kurdish statesman came two days after the Turkish parliament voted to authorize a cross-border incursion to root out the rebels from their bases in the mountains on the frontier. There has been no sign of imminent military strikes, and the United States and the Iraqi government have urged restraint.

"The experiences of the past years have shown that this issue cannot be solved through the course of war," Barzani said. "But at the same time we declare to all: if the region or the Kurdistan experiment faces any aggression under any pretext whatsoever, than we are fully prepared to defend our democratic experience and the dignity of our people and the sanctity of our homeland."

He said Iraqi Kurds were not responsible for the fighting between Turkey and the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.

"Kurdistan is not responsible for the war between Turkey and the PKK," he said. "And we have not supported the war or the violence and bloodletting or been dragged into this war."

Irbil proposed for meeting
He also urged Ankara to hold talks with the Kurdish authorities in the regional capital of Irbil, 217 miles north of Baghdad. "The best solution for any problem is dialogue and mutual understanding, rather than the language of threats and blackmail," he said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Iraq could prevent Turkish military action by eradicating Kurdish rebel bases and extraditing rebel leaders. But Iraqi Foreign Hoshyar Zebari has said the country does not have the resources to defeat the guerrillas. And the exchange did not appear to diminish the prospect that a new war front might soon be opened inside Iraq.

The U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist group, but has called on the Turkish government to work with Iraqis. President Bush said Turkey has had troops stationed in northern Iraq and should not send more across the border.

The Turkish threats have galvanized the Kurdish minority in Iraq, which is largely concentrated in three northern provinces that have seen relative peace and economic success.

Kurdish rebels have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast since 1984, with more than 30,000 people killed.

Hangings' controversy
Iraq's leaders, meanwhile, grappled over the death sentences for three former Saddam Hussein regime heavyweights _ including the enforcer known as "Chemical Ali" _ amid warnings the hangings could enflame sectarian violence.

U.S. and Iraqi government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said the three men remained in U.S. custody at the Camp Cropper detention center near Baghdad's airport, denying reports that they had been moved to an area close to the gallows in a northern suburb.

A court last month upheld the genocide and war crimes convictions against the three former regime insiders for their roles in the "Operation Anfal" campaign against autonomy-seeking Kurds in the 1980s that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Baghdad's attacks — including the use of poison gas in the Kurdish town of Halabja — came to symbolize the cruelty of Saddam's grip on power and brought the nickname "Chemical Ali" to one of the masterminds, Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid. The defendants claimed they were doing their duty by acting against Kurdish rebels supported by Tehran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

The others sentenced were former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Tai and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy operations director of the Iraqi armed forces.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who opposes the death penalty, has refused to sign off on the execution as technically required by Iraq's constitution. As a Kurd, Talabani's refusal carried special clout because of strong Kurdish desire to settle scores with Saddam's henchmen.

But Iraqi legal experts are divided over whether the presidential rule applies to the special court trying former regime figures.

The sticking point appears to be the government's decision to hang al-Tai, who was considered by Talabani and other Iraqis of all sects as a highly regarded officer despite his ties to Saddam.

Al-Tai, a Sunni Arab from the northern city of Mosul, negotiated the cease-fire than ended the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He also surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 after weeks of negotiations. His defense lawyers claimed the Americans had promised al-Tai "protection and good treatment" before he turned himself in.

The leader of parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc, Adnan al-Dulaimi, urged the government Friday to stay al-Tai's execution and release him, the bloc said.

"The government has to respect and to revere the Iraqi officers known for their nationalism and courage and for spending a long time defending the country against foreign aggression," al-Dulaimi said in a statement.

In violence Friday, a bomb exploded under the pulpit of an anti-al-Qaida Sunni preacher as he delivered a sermon, wounding the imam and six worshippers, police and witnesses said. It was the latest attack against Sunnis who have joined forces with the Americans against the terror network.

A mortar attack also struck a neighborhood in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, killing three women, police said.

West of Baghdad, two young would-be suicide bombers linked to al-Qaida in Iraq were arrested in Fallujah. Police said the boys, ages 15 and 16, confessed to planning attacks against a sheik who has turned against al-Qaida and a local mosque.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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