ISTANBUL, Turkey — ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A brazen ambush by Kurdish militants that left at least 12 Turkish soldiers dead touched off a major escalation in Turkey-Iraq tensions yesterday, bringing fears that Turkey would retaliate immediately by sending troops across the border into Iraq. But Turkey's prime minister said he delayed a decision after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally intervened.
The ambush by a large group of Kurdish militants about three miles from the border with Iraq early yesterday was seen as a direct provocation on the part of the militants, who have increasingly staged raids into Turkey from hideouts in the mountains of northern Iraq.
It was the most serious attack in recent memory by the militants, separatist fighters of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, and came only four days after Turkey's parliament formally approved contingency plans for military retaliation across the border.
Such action by Turkey, a NATO ally, would be embarrassing for the United States, which has military control over the territory that the Turks are threatening to invade. Moreover, a Turkish advance into northern Iraq would instantly bring fresh troubles to a country where the United States is preoccupied with trying to manage a civil war. And it would complicate stability in the broader region, which is generally antagonistic to American policy. Iran made remarks criticizing American policy yesterday, four days after Syria did the same.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, convened an emergency security meeting with top officials on last night in Ankara, Turkey's capital, to discuss an appropriate response.
Rice called him shortly before the meeting began and asked him to "allow us a few days," Erdogan said on national television. Turkey's Parliament last week granted authority to Erdogan's government to take military action in Iraq, a maneuver that was largely seen as a last-ditch effort to press the United States to act against the Kurdish militants.
"She expressed their seriousness in this matter by not only saying that they assessed the issue in a highly sensitive way," Erdogan said of his conversation with Rice, "but also, beyond emphasizing our righteousness, she said, 'Allow us a few days.'"
There was no immediate comment from Rice about the exchange, but earlier in the day the Bush administration strongly condemned the Kurdish militant ambush. The confrontation has brought Turkish-American relations to their lowest point in years. Turkey says the United States should do more to help fight the Kurdish group, which has killed nearly 40 Turkish soldiers in recent weeks in cross-border raids.
The Turkish military struck back inside Turkey yesterday, killing as many as 32 Kurdish militants, a government spokesman said. But the Kurdish ambush still drew strong public outrage here.