Turkish Troops Enter Iraq; Cleric Extends Truce
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION for NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
On this Friday morning one part of Iraq is becoming more violent, even as another part welcomes a longer ceasefire. We're going to catch up on both developments. And we begin in Baghdad, one of the areas affected by the announcement of a Shiite Muslim leader. He says his powerful militia will stay quiet another six months.
NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the move by Muqtada al-Sadr. And, Peter, how significant is it for Iraq when Sadr says his troops will stay quiet?
PETER KENYON: It's very significant. Actually…
INSKEEP: And we seem to have lost Peter Kenyon. Peter? Bare with us there. Okay. Peter Kenyon is gone. We're going to continue our discussion here. We'll tell you that the news is that Muqtada al-Sadr has extended a ceasefire by another six months. And this is seen by many analysts as significant, because Baghdad has become more quiet in recent months. And one reason is that Shiite Muslim militias have laid low. One of the most powerful militias is the one belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr.
We're going to try to get Peter Kenyon back. In the meantime, let's check in on the other development in Iraq - in Northern Iraq. Iraq's neighbor Turkey has sent troops across the border today. NPR's Ivan Watson has covered this region for four years - for several years, in fact. And, Ivan, what are the Turks doing?
IVAN WATSON: Well, they announced that they launched a ground operation across the border as of 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. And the U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish officials have confirmed that, in fact, Turkish soldiers did cross the border overnight. It appears to be the largest Turkish cross-border ground operation into Iraq in a decade.
The Turkish media is reporting up to 10,000 Turkish soldiers have moved a distance of about five miles into Iraqi territory. We haven't been able to confirm those numbers yet, because it appears to be in a remote area which is not heavily populated.
However, this advance followed hours of Turkish cross-border artillery bombardment yesterday, Steve, and a series of Turkish airstrikes, which the Iraqi Kurds say destroyed several important bridges. And it's important to note that at one location Iraqi Kurdish officials say their militiamen surrounded a column of advancing Turkish soldiers and tanks yesterday and, actually, after a very tense standoff, forced them to withdraw without firing a shot. So it shows how the tensions are mounting along the border there.
INSKEEP: Who are the targets of the Turkish troops?
WATSON: Well, the Turks say they're going after the PKK, which is a Kurdish separatist group, guerilla group, that has fought the Turkish state now for about 25 years, and they're operated out of camps on the Iraqi side of the border. And the Turks have been conducting airstrikes since last December with, it seems, American approval. However, the Iraqi Kurds are arguing that the Turks are using the PKK as a pretext to threaten the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
It's interesting that even though the Turks, earlier this week, announced the support for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, the Turks are still adamantly opposed to any move by the Iraqi Kurds to declare their independence from Baghdad.
INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is back with us from Baghdad. And, Peter, let me ask about what's happening in northern Iraq. What are officials in Baghdad saying about this incursion into their country?
KENYON: I'm sorry for the power outage here.
INSKEEP: It's okay.
KENYON: Not an unusual thing. But so far on the incursion it's been mostly silence from the Iraqis, though we did get a notice from President Jalal Talabani's office. He is an Iraqi Kurd. But he spoke with the Turkish president yesterday and did accept an invitation to visit Turkey in the near future. And the fear, of course, is that any clash could widen to include Iraqi Kurdish forces. So that's what we're watching very closely.
INSKEEP: And very, very briefly, are things relatively peaceful or what is the mood like as Sadr ends that ceasefire - extends that ceasefire I should say in Baghdad?
KENYON: It's mainly a mood of relief. They'd been hoping and expecting this to be extended. And that gives real hope for some national reconciliation, if Iraqi politicians can get their acts together this spring and summer.
INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, as well as NPR's Ivan Watson.
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