Turkish Troops Pursue Kurdish Rebels Into Iraq

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Today, President Barack Obama condemned attacks by Kurdish militants against Turkey. The militants are based in northern Iraq. They carried out a series of assaults against army bases in Turkey. 24 Turkish soldiers were killed. In response, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Iraq. It sent ground troops, jet fighters and helicopter gun ships to attack Kurdish militant bases there. At least 15 Kurdish fighters were killed. This outbreak of fighting is a big concern for the US, which still has tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. The BBC's Jonathan Head is in Istanbul and he says it's not the first time such attacks against Turkey have been carried out.

Jonathan Head: They are certainly the work of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers' Party, which is a very militant Kurdish group, at one point fighting for a separate state in Turkey. It says it's not doing that anymore, but it retains thousands of armed insurgents both inside Turkey and in bases in Iraq, and has stepped up its attacks on Turkish forces in the last three months. In particular it tends to target these remote hilltop outposts along the border, which is very mountainous between Iraq and Turkey, often sending very large numbers of the fighters at night. They did it last year and killed 13. This time in coordinated attacks just after midnight, they attacked eight of these outposts and killed at least 24, possibly more. And that makes it the worst death toll suffered by the Turkish army in a single incident since 1993. And so inevitably it has prompted a great deal of anger and we've had President Abdullah Gul, who's normally a pretty mild mannered man, threatening what he called a great vengeance. Turkey has got its troops now fighting back. They've gone into Iraq, probably about sort of 4-5 miles into Iraq, and are bombing bases a little deeper inside where the PKK has these strongholds up in the mountains.

Mullins: So with this escalation the violence is rising, the tensions are rising. Can you tell us first off what this is all about, what's at the heart of it and why it's escalating now?

Head: There is no public position from the PKK saying exactly why it's doing this. It comes after two years in which the current Turkish government lead by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's the most successful democratic politician here, well, he's tried to soften the government's traditionally hardline approach to the Kurds. He offered two years ago what he called a democratic opening where he would allow a lot more cultural autonomy and would look at Turkey's constitutional legal arrangements to make the Kurds feel more a part of the country. Now that initiative didn't get very far and in the meantime Turkey's rather Draconian judicial system as continued to lock out huge numbers of Kurdish community leaders and politicians under the catch-all anti terror laws, often giving them very long jail sentences. So the Kurds have felt very disappointed on what Mr. Erdogan's had to offer. But for all of that the PKK's decision to escalate its attacks so strongly in the last three months effectively kicks any possibility of peace into touch. No Turkish government suffering these kinds of losses can go to its people and say we should start talking to the PKK. So things have deteriorated fast in the last three months.

Mullins: Jonathan, is this a war between the Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey?

Head: It's actually not. Surprisingly, relations between the Turkish government and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq are actually very good, and that's because the Kurdish regional government, while it has strong sympathy for the Kurds in Turkey, benefits hugely from trade and aid coming from Turkey. So the Kurdish regional government has actually kept a fairly low profile and been quietly sympathetic to Turkey's desire to weaken the PKK. But public opinion in northern Iraq will inevitably sympathize with the Kurds in the north who are being hit by these Turkish air raids. So it's a delicate balancing act. Now, in the past the United States has also quietly gone along with Turkish efforts to reign in the PKK, but those also would have limits as well. The US has let it be known that it doesn't mind if Turkish troops go in hot pursuit over the border after PKK militants, but it doesn't want the war to escalate in the southeast. Turkey is a vital ally, so it's a complicated issue. And when the US pulls out of Iraq the possibilities of complications in Turkey's relations with Iraq and the Kurdish regional government will rise.

Mullins: The BBC's Jonathan Head in Istanbul, Turkey. Thank you.

Head: Thank you, Lisa.