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Turkish Troops Mass Near Northern Iraq Border


Across Iraq's border in southeast Turkey, the Turkish army clashed with Kurdish rebels today, killing several of them. Tensions have been growing in the region for weeks. Turkey's military chief of staff recently called for cross-border operations in Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of the Turkish-Kurdish separatists who shelter there.

NPR's Ivan Watson spent the day in southeast Turkey. He joins me now from northern Iraq. Ivan, let's start with the situation in Turkey. Does it feel like a Turkish invasion of Iraq from the border is imminent?


IVAN WATSON: There are fears because the Turkish military has openly called for cross-border incursions as early as April of this year. And where I traveled in the Southeast, the region is heavily militarized. There is a huge Turkish troop build up. Reports of hundreds of tanks rolling through towns and conducting live fire operations. We've traveled to one town called Sirnak, where three Turkish soldiers were killed yesterday, not far from that town by a remote controlled landmine. So it is a very tense scene throughout southeastern Turkey with locals there who saw the dark days of the Turkish PKK war in the '90s, saying this is the closest they've come back to those very dark days in years.

LYDEN: And you referred, of course, to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey just a moment ago with the PKK. What's fueling the sense of crisis now?

WATSON: Well, the fighting has been picking up between Turkish security forces and the PKK over the last several years and every spring and summer - that's really the fighting season and that's where we start hearing about more casualties. In addition to that, there's also a political crisis in Turkey, where you had presidential elections basically cancelled last month after an intervention into the political process by the very powerful Turkish military, which is pushing the hardest for an incursion here into northern Iraq.

LYDEN: So how do things seem on the other side of the border? You've crossed into northern Iraq now. You are in Dahuk. Are people bracing for an invasion? Are they concerned about this?

WATSON: Jacki, the top topic of conversation and debate here among the Iraqi Kurds is what are we going to do about this big Turkish threat to our north? Are the Turks going to come in and invade and take away what we've achieved over the past several years.


LYDEN: So what's the thinking? Do people think that Turkey really will do this?

WATSON: I think there are big fears, and they are hoping that the U.S. will protect them from this and the U.S. has spoken out saying, listen Turkey, you have a right to defend yourselves against a threat of terrorism from the PKK but to invade northern Iraq would only further destabilize a country that many say is already immersed in a civil war.

LYDEN: NPR's Ivan Watson is in Dahuk in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Thanks very much for being with us, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, Jacki.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.