Iraq's Kurds Prompt Troop Movement in Turkey, Iran

Turkey and Iran have recently put more troops on their borders with northern Iraq, where Kurdish separatists maintain mountain bases. It's a troubling new development in an embattled region.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Iraq today, three car bombs exploded in Northern Baghdad, and a fourth blast hit the Shiite Holy City of Karbala. The Associated Press reported that at least 17 people died in the Baghdad blasts, and five people died in Karbala.

As the insurgency in Iraq has persisted, over the past month Iran and Turkey have deployed large numbers of additional troops along their borders with northern Iraq. The two countries appear to be coordinating their efforts to battle Kurdish separatist rebels who maintain bases in the remote mountains of Northern Iraq.

In the past several weeks, the Iraqi government has expressed concern after it accused Iran of shelling some of these bases.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Sulamenia(ph), in Northern Iraq. He explains who the Kurdish separatists are.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

They're the Kurdistan Workers Party. They're better known as the PKK, and they're actually a mix of ethnic Kurds from the Kurdish minority populations in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. They started as a movement in the early '80s that was fighting against the state in Turkey, where ethnic Kurds have long been oppressed.

And they're actually trying to carve out a greater Kurdistan in this region. That guerilla war it's going on to this day, it claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people, and today the PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., even the European Union.

And over the years, this group, they've established some enclaves just along the mountains in the border area of Northern Iraq, along the borders with Iran and Turkey. And they continue to operate there to this day, out of the control of any government, really.

HANSEN: So why are Turkey and Iran putting the pressure on them now?

WATSON: Well, about two years ago, a wing of the PKK began attacking security forces in neighboring Iran. Meanwhile, clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces have really intensified, especially over the past several months. So that prompted Turkey to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops along the border with Northern Iraq and to actually begin some cross border operations against the PKK.

Iran, meanwhile, it began shelling across the border last month for the first time in years, hitting some of those PKK enclaves. And it has a couple of incentives for this. One of them is that its crackdown on the PKK has been hugely popular in Turkey. It's been applauded in the Turkish press, and as we know, Iran needs all the international support it can get right now as it faces off with the U.S. over its nuclear program.

HANSEN: Now, if these border tensions are taking place in territory under the control of Iraqi Kurds, what do they have to say about the Turkish and the Iranian military operations?

WATSON: Well, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and the government in Baghdad, where the Iraq Kurds are fairly well represented, they have expressed concern about this, but this concern has been somewhat muted. The fact is, is that the Iraqi Kurds, in the past, they've clashed with the PKK. They're not really close to this other Kurdish faction. At the same time, they can't really be seen to be joining with the Turks and the Iranians against their fellow Kurdish brothers, because the PKK does enjoy some popular support here in northern Iraq among ordinary Iraqi Kurds.

HANSEN: Are you hearing anything from Washington about these border tensions?

WATSON: Well, Washington has urged Turkey not to conduct cross-border operations, saying that's not good for stability in the region. And it has urged Turkey to work together with the government in Baghdad and with the Americans to try to resolve this issue.

The Turks, meanwhile, have said they have the right to conduct missions that are hot pursuit of PKK rebels across the border into Northern Iraq. The top PKK leaders, just in the past couple of days, have announced that they will intensify their attacks against both Iran and Turkey if those countries continue to attack their bases.

So we're likely to see more pressure on the PKK in the coming weeks and months.

HANSEN: NPR's Ivan Watson in Sulamenia, in Northern Iraq.

Ivan, thank you very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Liane.

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