Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer during arrivals for a NATO defense ministers meeting in Noordwijk, the Netherlands on Oct. 24. (The Associated Press)
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NOORDWIJK, the Netherlands — Pentagon chief Robert Gates said Wednesday he saw little sense in airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq until more is known about their locations along the border.
His comments to reporters during a break in a NATO defense ministers meeting suggested concern that Turkey will open a large-scale offensive across the border into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. That area has been one of the most prosperous and peaceful parts of Iraq in recent years.
Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships reportedly attacked positions of Kurdish rebels just inside Turkey earlier Wednesday, and Turkish leaders in Ankara discussed the scope and duration of a possible offensive.
Turkey's leaders face demands at home to stage an offensive in northern Iraq. Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party — known as the PKK — rest, train and get supplies in relative safety in the area before returning to Turkey to conduct attacks in support of their goal of autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
At a press conference in this seaside village, where defense ministers of all 26 NATO member countries gathered to discuss their efforts in Afghanistan, Gates was asked to assess the prospects of the U.S. military launching air strikes in support of Turkey's efforts against the Kurdish rebels.
"Without good intelligence, just sending large numbers of troops across the border (from Turkey) or dropping bombs doesn't seem to make much sense to me," Gates said.
The defense secretary was questioned about whether his sense of the limitations on effective military action applied to the U.S. as well as Turkish strikes. "For anybody," he said.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told soldiers at Fort Riley, Kan., that the border situation is complex and any incursions across it would be a difficult undertaking.
Asked later whether the U.S. is considering air strikes, Mullen said he would not disclose any military options at this point.
"It's a pretty tough area. It's a pretty mountainous area," he told reporters. "Nothing would be simple."
In Washington, Pentagon officials said they could not confirm reports of air strikes.
"I don't know of any Turkish air strikes in that area today," Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, Joint Chiefs of Staff operational planning director, said at a Defense Department press conference.
Separately, a senior defense official said there is increasing frustration at the highest reaches of the Bush administration with the Turkey-Iraq situation, that the Iraqis understand that, and that there is growing sympathy with the Turkish position that something has to be done.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the U.S. military thinks the Turks would "like to avoid a cross-border military operation on the ground if they could."
He suggested Turkey hopes "others will take ... tangible and concrete action to help preclude that." The official cited ways of curtailing the rebels' movement and making it more difficult to operate across the border."
In congressional testimony Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Iraqis are taking steps to crack down on Kurdish rebels. The U.S. has told Turkey that retaliatory attacks would have a "destabilizing effect," she said.
Few of the U.S. military forces in Iraq are along the border with Turkey, but there is ample air power available. U.S. officials have said repeatedly in recent days that U.S. forces are tied up with the long-running fight against insurgents and the al-Qaida in Iraq group elsewhere in the country.
At the outset of Wednesday's NATO meeting, the alliance's top diplomat, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, said Turkey is showing "remarkable restraint" in the Kurdish matter. He said the 26 allies expressed solidarity with Turkey in the face of the attacks by rebels.