ANKARA, Turkey — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he told Turkish leaders Thursday that they should end an offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq as soon as possible. Yet even as Gates made his appeal, the Turkish military pressed ahead.
Gates told reporters after his talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish leaders that he made no threats to pull U.S. intelligence support.
"I think they got our message," Gates said.
Turkish officials did not discuss any deadline for winding up the offensive, Gates said. The Pentagon chief also said he did not know if the longtime NATO ally would end the operation in a week, as he asked.
"I stand by where I've been on this. And that is that they should wrap this thing up as soon as they can," Gates said.
In Washington, President Bush and his top military adviser, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, made similar points, with Mullen speaking more explicitly about possible ramifications.
"It should not be long-lasting," Bush said at a White House news conference. "The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out."
Mullen said the Turkish incursion "comes at a very sensitive time with respect to our engagement in Iraq, and we're very worried that it could tip the balance in the wrong direction, in terms of our engagement there, making it much more difficult. So it is a very delicate balance."
Mullen said his Turkish counterpart has assured him "that they will in fact limit" the duration of the military action but have not given the United States a specific date on which they intend to pull out.
The cross-border fighting has put the United States in a delicate position. For one, it is close allies with Iraq and Turkey, Secondly, a prolonged Turkish offensive could jeopardize security in Iraq just as the U.S. is seeking to consolidate recent security gains.
With Gates meeting government officials in Ankara, a military convoy of at least six dozen trucks carried Turkish troops and equipment to a military outpost near the Iraqi border.
During the day, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene, Turkish artillery fired shells across the border while nearly a dozen attack helicopters flew toward Iraq over Cukurca, the closest Turkish town to where some clashes are taking place with rebels.
Military helicopters, surrounded by the trucks, waited at a small air base near Cukurca by evening.
The militants targeted by the Turks are members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. For years, the group has used areas on the Iraqi side of the border to launch attacks against government targets inside Turkey. Both Turkey and the U.S. regard the PKK as terrorists. Although the U.S. military in Iraq has not taken direct action against PKK targets, the U.S. has stepped up efforts in recent months to provide the Turks with intelligence for targeting the group.
"It's in nobody's interest that there be safe haven for people who ... have the willingness to kill innocent people," Bush said, referring to the PKK.
Gates characterized his talks with the Turks as productive. "I think there was a real dialogue, we were both listening," he said.
Gates said he pressed the Turks on three key points, saying they need to:
_continue and deepen their dialogue with the Iraqi government, which has strongly objected to the incursion.
_be more open about the specifics of their operation, including the number of troops involved.
_recognize that military means alone will not solve the problem.
Providing the Iraqis with more details, Gates said, "would help correct a lot of misimpressions and potential misunderstanding."
During a news conference with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Gates said, "The United States believes the current offensive should be as short and precisely targeted as possible.
"The key is for us to make clear what our interests are, our concerns about the situation in Iraq," Gates said. "What is important is to serve both the interests of the United States and Turkey because I think we have shared interests."
Gates was asked whether he told the Turks that the Bush administration would rescind its intelligence and surveillance assistance for the mission if the fighting dragged on. "I think that those interests are probably not advanced by making threats or threatening to cut off intelligence," Gates replied.
The fighting is worrisome for the United States because Turkey is a NATO ally and Iraq, while not in a formal military alliance with Washington, is an important U.S. partner.
"It is a little awkward for us," Gates acknowledged.
Still, he said that after the meetings with Turkish officials he is convinced that the "size of the operation is probably proportionate" to the terrorist threat posed by the PKK in northern Iraq.
Gates said he told the defense minister that military action alone will not end the threat from the PKK.
Gonul, the Turkish defense minister, said the Turks have no intention of disturbing civilian areas of Iraq or occupying any portion of its neighbor. He said the main goal is to destroy the PKK network in Iraq and render the organization unusable. He said he believes doing that would contribute both to security in Iraq and stability in the region.
"Turkey's government should make clear to the Iraqi government and everyone concerned exactly what their intentions are and the limited goals and scope of their operations," Gates said.
Gonul said Turkey would end its operation after reaching its goals.
"It depends on winter conditions. If the mission is accomplished, we have no intention of staying there," Gonul said.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Suzan Fraser contributed to this report.