BAGHDAD ­- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an attempt to defuse a major border crisis with Turkey, on Tuesday barred a Kurdish rebel group from operating on Iraqi soil and ordered its offices closed.

“We will work on everything that limits its terrorist activities that threatens Iraq as it threatens Turkey,” al-Maliki announced after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in Baghdad.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has openly trained its guerrilla forces in Kurdish northern Iraq, controlled access to the training and operated with relative freedom in the mountainous border region. PKK militants also have mounted guerrilla operations into Iran, through an offshoot called the PJAK.

In the last year, U.S. intelligence officials believe the PJAK has killed more than 250 Iranians.

In barring the rebel group from operating on Iraqi territory or maintaining offices in Iraq, al-Maliki applied the label “terrorist.” The PKK has long been on the U.S. list of terrorist groups, but Iraq until now had resisted applying the label. On Tuesday, however, al-Maliki called the group a “bad terrorist organization.”

Tensions between Iraq and Turkey have been rising in recent months due to PKK assaults against military and civilian targets in Turkey.

PKK militants killed at least a dozen Turkish troops and captured another eight in a cross-border raid over the weekend. Turkey has sent troops and armor to the border and has threatened military action to dismantle the rebel group’s operations in Iraq.

The PKK was founded to support a separate Kurdish state on Turkish territory but more recently has focused on securing more rights for indigenous Kurds.

Earlier Tuesday, Babacan and the Iraqi foreign minister pledged to work together in seeking a diplomatic solution to the brewing border crisis.

After meeting for two hours in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Babacan agreed that it was in both countries’ interests to avoid further bloodshed. But Babacan didn’t rule out further military action.

Military action remained “on the table,” Babacan said, but added: “It doesn’t mean we’re giving up with other tools.”

Delegations from both sides plan to meet next week in Istanbul to head off the crisis.

“We don’t want to lose our relationship with Iraq because of terrorists,” Babacan said.

Zebari, himself a Kurd, said a diplomatic solution is possible. “I am very optimistic, but the crisis is very complicated,” he said.

On Tuesday, Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, talked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but no details of the telephone conversation were released.

Semi-autonomous Kurdistan, a vast region of 5 million people in Iraq’s northernmost reaches, has been relatively unscathed by the war being conducted by coalition forces in other parts of the country.

The PKK has offered a negotiated end to its insurgency, but Turkey has refused to deal with it.

“We will not attack the Turkish forces except in cases of self-defense,” Abdul Rahman al Jadraji, a spokesman for the PKK, said in an interview. His group, he said, is “ready to stop fighting.”

Kurds across northern Iraq, sympathetic to the PKK militants, condemned the massing of Turkish troops at the border.

Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds took part in protests earlier this week in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan’s largest cities. Many pledged readiness in defending Kurdistan against possible military action by Turkey.

“Clearly, we do not support a Turkish military solution,” said Jamal Abdullah, the spokesman for the Kurdistan government.

Nevertheless, the peshmerga, as the regional army is called, is in a state of readiness, said Maj. Gen. Jabbar Yaur.

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Yaseen Taha and Mohammed Al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-23-07 1956EDT

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