BAGHDAD - Turkey has the right to defend itself against Kurdish rebels based in Iraq but must make sure it does not destabilize its neighbor, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said yesterday.

Ryan Crocker made the remarks before news emerged that Turkey had bombed Kurdish rebel targets in Iraq yesterday - for the third time in a week. Turkish warplanes also bombed positions held by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, on Saturday and on Dec. 16.

"We've been clear on this. The PKK is a terrorist organization, it has carried out a number of lethal actions in Turkey from bases in Iraq, and the Turks clearly have a right to defend their country and their people," Crocker told reporters in Baghdad.

He made the comments as Turkish jets were bombing an area about 50 miles north of the city of Irbil near the border with Turkey for about an hour and a half.

"At the same time we've also said that we all have a pretty substantial interest in the stability of Iraq and none of us want to see operations pursued in a manner that can threaten basic stability inside Iraq," he said.

Crocker said the issue posed by the PKK was going to "continue to be a complex equation" of coordination and communication among the governments of the United States, Turkey and Iraq. He said that all three nations wanted to see "an end to the capacity of the PKK to operate against Turkey from Iraq," but that this had to be done "in a way that does not create problems of stability inside Iraq."

Crocker added that Iraq had to build on some of the security it had achieved during the last half of 2007. "The positive developments in the latter half of 2007 represent the challenges of 2008," he said.

They included the return of refugees, national reconciliation, and the absorption of Sunni Arab volunteer groups known as "Awakening Councils." Equally important, he said, was how Iran defined its role in Iraq next year - whether it would use its influence to reduce violence or to create further instability.

Iraq has seen a clear improvement in security in recent months, with the U.S. military saying violence is down by about 60 percent.

The decrease in attacks has been partly attributed to the work of the Sunni groups that used to fight Iraqi forces and the U.S. military, but have now turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and receive U.S. backing.

On Saturday, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi, a Sunni, said the groups would not be allowed to become a separate military force. The statement was the Shiite-led government's most explicit yet of its intent to dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.

Elsewhere in Iraq

A local government official

in the town of Kut, south of the capital, escaped an apparent assassination attempt yesterday when a bomb exploded outside his house. Abdul-Ridha al-Badri, director of the human-rights ministry's provincial branch in Kut, his wife and four sons were injured by shattered glass and falling pieces of the house's facade, a police officer said.

Gunmen shot and killed

an Iraqi army officer west of the city of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, police said. Lt. Col. Nayif Muhammed al-Shammari was shot as he drove his car.

A roadside bomb

targeting an Iraqi army patrol in Baghdad killed two civilians.

In Mosul, a parked car bomb

targeting a passing police patrol killed a civilian and wounded five officers, police said.