WASHINGTON, Nov 5 (Reuters) US President George W Bush, facing Turkish threats of a military offensive in Iraq to root out Kurdish rebels, will assure Turkey's prime minister today he is committed to helping to combat the militants.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who will meet with Bush at the White House, has made clear he wants concrete action to counter Kurdish rebels who have been launching attacks on Turkey from Iraqi soil.
If Erdogan walks away from the meeting dissatisfied, there could be major repercussions for Bush's effort to stabilize Iraq where he has lately been touting progress.
Turkey, a NATO member with the alliance's second-biggest army, has sent up to 100,000 troops to the Iraqi border, backed by tanks, artillery and aircraft.
Ankara has said it may take cross-border action soon. Erdogan is facing strong public pressure to go after the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants after a series of attacks on Turkish soldiers in recent weeks.
In one attack last month, PKK guerrillas killed at least 12 soldiers and captured eight. However, the rebels freed the eight soldiers on Sunday, a development that could ease some pressure on the Turkish government to launch a major military operation.
Washington has urged Turkey to avoid sending thousands of troops across the border amid fears such an operation could destabilize one of the calmest parts of Iraq and cause a wider regional crisis.
Turkish officials have portrayed the meeting between Bush and Erdogan as a last chance effort to avert a military strike.
Outside the White House gates at least 100 protesters waved Kurdish flags and chanted ''Long live Kurdistan!'' and ''Down, down Erdogan!'' 'TESTING PATIENCE' Before leaving for Washington, Erdogan told reporters he hoped for concrete steps from the United States to stop attacks that are ''testing our nation's patience.'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino emphasized that Turkey was ''a long-running ally'' and that Washington shared its concerns about the PKK.
''We are concerned about the challenge posed by the PKK terrorists,'' she said. ''They should be eradicated. We will work with Turkey and the Iraqis to make sure there is not a safe haven established for the PKK in that region.'' If Turkey defies U.S. wishes and opts to go ahead with a major military strike, it would be another blow to Bush, who has already been embarrassed by the decision of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to set emergency rule despite US entreaties that he not do so.
Pressed on what Bush might offer Turkey to persuade it to show restraint, Perino said she could not give specifics but said Ankara has been appreciative of US intelligence-sharing on the PKK.
''Bush is going to have to offer something,'' said Bulent Aliriza, an expert on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ''This is an unusual situation.
Most of the time, these meetings are very carefully choreographed ahead of time.'' But Aliriza said an attempt by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lay the groundwork for the meeting during a weekend trip to Istanbul appeared to do little to satisfy Ankara's demands.
Visiting Turkey for a regional conference on Iraqi security this weekend, Rice called the PKK militants a ''common enemy'' but did not spell out what Washington might do to stop from them using Iraq as a base for attacks on Turkey.
The conference on Iraq in Istanbul also brought a vow from the Iraqi government to hunt down PKK militants responsible for raids into Turkey.
However, the Iraqi government has limited sway in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the success of any measures against the PKK militants would depend on the cooperation of Kurdish authorities.
Reuters NC DB2354