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Turkish Troops Set Sights on Kurdish Rebels


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.



I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Turkey thousands of people rallied over the weekend in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Turkey's soldiers have been clashing with Kurdish rebels. Fifteen Turkeys soldiers have been killed over the past week.

COHEN: Some of the Kurdish rebel attacks are reportedly being launched from northern Iraq. And now there are fears that the fighting could spill back over the border.

I spoke earlier with NPR's Ivan Watson, who's in Iraqi Kurdistan today.

IVAN WATSON: We went to a town called Kani Masi in Iraqi Kurdistan, right near the Turkish border. Locals and Iraqi Kurdish security forces said that Turkish artillery had been pounding the surrounding mountains for the fourth straight night and some arrant shells had fallen into nearby Iraqi Kurdish villages. There were no reported injuries or casualties but that has terrified the local population there, which include many Christians who have actually fled fighting in much more violent Iraqi cities like Baghdad and Mosul and have moved to Iraqi Kurdistan because that has long been considered the safest part of Iraq.


COHEN: There are a number of Turkish troops based in Iraqi Kurdistan right now. How have they been responding to what's been going on?

WATSON: Well, this may surprise some listeners, that there are a number of Turkish military bases scattered across Iraqi Kurdistan as far as 10 miles into Iraqi Kurdish territory that were established here years before the U.S. military invaded Iraq. They're part of a security cordon that was agreed upon for the Turkish military to help fight against Turkish Kurdish separatists known as the PKK. So you drive around northern Iraq and you see these bases with Turkish tanks and machine gun nests, it is a very confusing situation, where local Kurds will say, well, we don't mind these guys and the Turkish army bases that are in our territory. What we mind are the Turkish soldiers across the border who keep shooting at our fields.

COHEN: All of this escalating violence comes in the midst of a political crisis in Turkey after the country's presidential elections were canceled last month. How is that playing out in this conflict between the Turks and the Kurds?

WATSON: Well, you do have a high death toll across the border in Turkey, where the battle has been taking place. And every time a bomb goes off in western Turkey that's blamed on the Kurdish separatist known as the PKK or that a Turkey soldier's killed, you get calls coming, especially from the Turkish military, to launch cross border operations here into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish military has effectively used this issue as a lever to press the current government, and this has become a divisive campaign issue and it's pushing politicians to say, okay, yeah, if you'll elect me, I'll crack down on those Kurds.

COHEN: What role is the U.S. military playing in this conflict?

WATSON: The U.S. has called for calm. It's urging the Turkish military not to launch a large scale cross border incursion, saying that that would only destabilize the only relatively safe and stable part of Iraq. It's interesting to note that many Iraqi Kurds I've talked to today, they said, it is the U.S.'s responsibility as the occupying power in Iraq to protect us from Turkey. And I might add that the Iraqi Kurds are the closest allies to the U.S. in Iraq and Turkey is one of the closest military allies to the U.S. in the region. The two allies are kind of canceling each other out right now.

COHEN: NPR's Ivan Watson, joining us from Iraqi Kurdistan. Thanks so much, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.