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Gates Presses Turkey to Stop Iraq Incursion

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Gates Presses Turkey to Stop Iraq Incursion

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Gates Presses Turkey to Stop Iraq Incursion

Gates Presses Turkey to Stop Iraq Incursion

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged Turkey on Thursday to abandon its invasion of Kurdish rebel-controlled lands in Northern Iraq. American and Iraqi leaders are increasingly worried that fighting along the Turkey-Iraq border could widen into a broader conflict.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Turkey today. He's spending the day with Turkish military leaders to drive home the message that the U.S. is running out of patience with the Turkish military operation in northern Iraq. Turkish forces launched an incursion against Kurdish rebels there a week ago.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): It's very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave. They have to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty. I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that. Not months.

MONTAGNE: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Turkey. Yesterday Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari made a similar demand.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Foreign Minister, Iraq): We reject this. We will not accept it and ask for suspension, an end to these military operations, and for the Turkish troops to withdraw as soon as possible and immediately. In fact, immediately.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson is in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, and joins us now. And Ivan, why the pressure from the U.S. and the Iraqis, pressure we've just heard, at this exact point in time?

IVAN WATSON: Well, the fears are that this Turkish incursion could destabilize the Iraqi-Kurdistan region in the north, which hasn't had any major insurgent attacks in more than a year. Also, the Iraqi Kurds do not trust the Turks in this military offensive, and every day that this drags on there are fears that the conflict could spill over into their turf and trigger a shooting war between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds.

MONTAGNE: And Secretary of State Gates is in Turkey, of course, today. But how has Turkey responded to the U.S. pushing it to end this incursion?

WATSON: The Turkish position has been that its only objective is to destroy the PKK camps along the border between Turkey and Iraq. And yesterday a Turkish envoy told the Iraqi government and told journalists that there is no timetable for Turkish withdrawal until those camps are completely destroyed.

MONTAGNE: And Ivan, you've been to the battleground near the Turkish border. Tell us what you've seen.

WATSON: Well, the Iraqi Kurds don't let you get too close into this no-man's land. You can't really see the fighting. You can hear Turkish war planes flying overhead. I can't stress enough how rugged this territory is. These are snow-capped mountains, deep gorges. And the PKK fighters who've been there, I've visited their camps in the past. These are hardened mountain warriors who have lived in very Spartan conditions in these mountains and they have launched attacks on Turkish territory from these camps. And that's part of why Turkey insists it has to carry out this operation. The PKK fighters have been fighting back fiercely. The Turkish military has admitted to losing more than 20 soldiers in the past week alone.

So this fight is still underway and it's a question whether the Turks can actually pacify this region. They tried throughout the 1990s and failed. The Turks say this time around they're getting intelligence information. And they also say that the PKK is more isolated than it was in the past, that this time it doesn't enjoy the same support among Turkish Kurds or from a foreign aid or sponsor like Syria. The PKK enjoyed weapons and money from Syria in the past.

MONTAGNE: And what about Iraqi Kurds? You're there in the Kurdistan region. What are they saying about all this?

WATSON: They don't trust the Turks. They know that the Turks have threatened to go to war if the Iraqi Kurds declare independence from Baghdad. They all believe that this is a pretext by the Turks to try to destabilize their region and stop them from developing further.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from Iraqi Kurdistan. Thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

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