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Iraqi Kurds Raise Stakes Against Turkey

The most senior leader in Iraq's Kurdish region appeared to raise the stakes in the standoff over northern Iraq on Friday, warning Turkey that the region would defend itself against any cross-border military strike on rebel bases.

The tough line taken by the Kurdish region's president, Massoud Barzani, further stoked worries that a Turkish incursion could ignite a wider cycle of conflict and unrest in one of the few stable corners of Iraq.

Barzani said urgent talks were needed on all sides. But Turkey has flatly declared it is out of patience with escalating attacks by separatist guerrillas who use hideouts in northern Iraq.

As both Baghdad and Washington struggled to avert conflict between two of its key allies in the region, Turkey's prime minister insisted that the camps of Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq must be destroyed and rebel leaders extradited to Turkey for trial.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for more than two decades for autonomy in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast. The conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives.

American officials have suggested the U.S. and Iraq may engage in joint action against the PKK. But Barzani had stern words for Turkey: "We are fully prepared to defend our democratic experience and the dignity of our people and the sanctity of our homeland" against what he termed threatened aggression.

Turkey's parliament on Wednesday gave the government a one-year window in which to launch cross-border offensives against Turkish Kurd rebel strongholds in Iraq. The vote led to large-scale protests by Iraqi Kurds, calls for restraint by Baghdad and Washington and uncertainty over Turkey's next move - which has helped push oil prices to record highs.

Bomb blasts, meanwhile, crippled an Iraqi oil pipeline feeding a refinery near the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, which many Kurds consider part of their historical homeland. Such attacks, blamed on anti-U.S. insurgents, occur frequently.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said Thursday that Baghdad was willing to increase pressure on the PKK, but his comments did not appear to appease Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We welcome this as a positive step, but it is an announcement that came late," Erdogan said Friday in Istanbul. "The PKK camps must be eradicated and the rebel leaders must be extradited. That would satisfy Turkey."

Erdogan said he had told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Turkey does not want to be "deceived with promises."

Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, speaking in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, told reporters that the United States would "not accept" any Turkish military operations in northern Iraq. But he also predicted Ankara would not launch an assault.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to show restraint. "He welcomes the affirmation by the Turkish foreign minister that Turkey is open to discussing all problems in Iraq," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in a statement. "The secretary-general also calls on the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that Iraq's territory is not used to mount cross border attacks."

Since the first Gulf War, Turkey has been concerned that autonomy for Kurds in northern Iraq would encourage separatist hopes among Turkey's estimated 3 million Kurds. In addition to Turkey, Iraq and Syria, Iran also has a large Kurdish population.

Turkish anger over the Kurdish issue was deepened by a debate in the U.S. Congress over whether to label the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I as a genocide. Erdogan thanked the U.S. administration for trying to block the genocide resolution.

Turkey has accused Iraqi Kurdish officials of turning a blind eye to the presence of the PKK. But Zebari said Iraq doesn't have sufficient military forces to push the separatist fighters out of Iraq while battling al Qaeda, Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite Muslim militias.

Barzani, the Kurdish president, said his regional government has not supported the separatist movement.

"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."

Iraq's three predominantly Kurdish provinces in the north have seen only sporadic violence and a measure of economic prosperity, while the rest of Iraq has been engulfed in bloodshed.

In violence across Iraq on Friday, at least 16 people were killed or found dead in apparent sectarian slayings.

In the latest of a series of attacks on Iraq's most powerful Shiite political party, gunmen killed the organization's leader in a city south of Baghdad.

Mohammed Hashim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council's party operations in Iskandariyah, was shot to death as he walked near his home, police said. Iskandariyah is 30 miles south of Baghdad in a mixed Sunni-Shiite region.

Two provincial governors south of Baghdad who were members of the party were slain in the past months. Members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia, a rival organization, were suspected in those killings.