The Bush Administration is considering air strikes, including cruise missiles, against the Kurdish rebel group PKK in northern Iraq.

The move would be an attempt to stave off a Turkish invasion of that country to fight the rebels. President George Bush spoke with Turkish President Abdullah Gul by phone yesterday in an effort to ease the crisis. And Prime Minister John Howard says the tensions on the Turkey-Iraq border will not help the west’s battle for democracy in Iraq. Mr Howard said there was some recent evidence that US forces were making headway in their battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq following the US troop surge. “There is some evidence in recent weeks that the surge has been more successful than many of its critics wanted it to be or believe it would be,” Mr Howard told an army land warfare conference in Adelaide today.

But he hoped the temperature between Turkey and the Kurds was kept as low as possible. “It is in a strategic sense a complicating factor at a time when evidence is emerging of slow but nonetheless some progress being made in improving the security position in Iraq,” he said. “The message I would give to Turkey and Iraq is, like everybody else, just keep it as cool and at a lower temperature as possible,” Mr Howard said.

According to an official familiar with the conversation, Mr Bush assured the Turkish President that the US was seriously looking into options beyond diplomacy to stop the attacks coming from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

“It’s not ‘Kumbaya’ time any more – just talking about trilateral talks is not going to be enough,” the official said. “Something has to be done.”

While the use of US soldiers on the ground to root out the PKK would be the last resort, the US would be willing to launch air strikes on PKK targets, the official said, and has discussed the use of cruise missiles. But air strikes using manned aircraft may be an easier option because the US controls the air space over Iraq. Another option would be to persuade the Kurdistan Regional Government, which runs that part of Iraq, to order its Peshmerga forces to form a cordon preventing the movement of the PKK beyond its mountain camps.

“In the past, there has been reluctance to engage in direct US military action against the PKK, either through air strikes or some kind of Special Forces action,” said the official familiar with the Bush-Gul conversation, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the red line was always, if the Turks were going to come over the border, it could be so destabilising that it might be less risky for us to do something ourselves. “Now the Turks are at the end of their rope, and our risk calculus is changing.”

Meanwhile, Iraq said today it would shut down the operations of Kurdish rebels based on its soil, hoping to head off the threatened invasion by Turkish troops massed on the border.

“The PKK is a terrorist organisation and we have taken a decision to shut down their offices and not allow them to operate on Iraqi soil,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said. “We will also work on limiting their terrorist activities which are threatening Iraq and Turkey,” Maliki said after crisis talks in Baghdad with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. He gave no details on how the rebels could be prevented from launching attacks from their remote mountain bases. Analysts say military action would have to involve US forces in Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara was giving diplomacy a chance, but reminded Iraq that Turkey’s parliament had given the go-ahead for a military incursion at any time.

And the publication of photographs said to show eight Turkish soldiers captured by the rebels increased pressure on Turkey’s government to take swift action.

“Right now we are in a waiting stance but Iraq should know we can use the mandate for a cross-border operation at any time,” Erdogan told a joint news conference in London after talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He later ratcheted up pressure by telling an investors’ conference that Turkey might impose sanctions on exports to Iraq. Turkish exports to Iraq were worth $US2.6 billion ($A2.94 billion) in 2006.

PKK separatists, operating from northern Iraq, killed a dozen Turkish soldiers in weekend fighting. The PKK said it also captured eight soldiers, and a news agency with close links to the rebels published what it said were photographs of the captives today. Turkey had denied soldiers had been captured but acknowledged eight were missing.

“The pictures show their health condition is pretty good,” said the Firat news agency, which is based in western Europe. With feelings running high in Turkey, and anti-PKK protests in several towns, the broadcasting watchdog banned news reports on the deaths of the 12 soldiers.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said PKK attacks on Turkey would not be tolerated.

“We have given the PKK the option to leave or disarm. We care for every drop of Turkish blood like we care for every drop of Iraqi blood,” he said after talks with Babacan.

Washington has so far been reluctant to attack PKK rebels, fearing this could damage ties with Iraqi Kurds and destabilise the Kurdish region, the only area of Iraq to see relative stability and prosperity since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Turkey estimates 3,000 PKK rebels are based in Iraq. Ankara believes US forces in Iraq have the capability of capturing PKK leaders hiding in the Qandil mountains, shutting down their camps and cutting off supply routes and logistical support.

Turkey’s government says it will use all diplomatic options before launching any strike into northern Iraq against the PKK. The easing in rhetoric has helped bring global oil prices down from record highs. Turkey has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, F-16 fighter jets and helicopter gunships along its border in preparation for a possible attack on rebel bases.

“If expected developments do not take place in the next few days, we will have to take care of our own situation,” Erdogan said in Oxford, England, yesterday.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Britain’s visiting foreign secretary, David Miliband, said they had proposed a meeting in Istanbul next month of officials from the United States, Turkey and Iraq to discuss how to stop PKK attacks.

Iraq’s Talabani said yesterday the PKK would announce a ceasefire. Later the guerrilla group said in a statement it was ready for peace if Ankara stopped its military offensive against Kurdish fighters. It made no mention of a ceasefire. Babacan said any ceasefire offer would be meaningless as the PKK was a terrorist organisation, not a sovereign army.

An ambush over the weekend by 200 PKK guerrillas left 12 Turkish soldiers dead and eight missing. The attack’s sophistication and scope surprised not only the Turks but also the US and its Iraqi allies.

The US, with Iraqi help, also could squeeze the flow of supplies and funds for the PKK coming across the border, or through the airport in Irbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey yesterday said it would exhaust diplomatic channels before launching any military strike into northern Iraq

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