McCain, Obama Tussle over Iraq
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So on Friday we like to take time to check in on what's been happening in Iraq over the past week. It's a segment we call the week in Iraq.
(Soundbite of MTV's The Week in Rock theme)
ALISON STEWART, host:
On Monday, Pentagon officials estimated that about 21,000 U.S. troops will leave - that leave Iraq this July. There will still be about 8000 more troops on the ground than before the so-called surge began. Lieutenant General Carter Ham said a total of 140,000 troops will remain in Iraq. It was the first time the pentagon gave a public estimation of that number.
MARTIN: On Tuesday, the U.S. Army said soldiers heading to war this summer are likely to have a shorter tour of duty. General George Casey announced deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan will be shortened from 15 months to 12 once the military completes its drawdown in Iraq this July.
STEWART: On Wednesday, Iraq resurfaced in the race for the White House, when John McCain criticized Barack Obama for saying that as president he'd withdraw combat troops from Iraq immediately, then consider sending some back if al- Qaida formed a base there. Obama respond in kind. Here's a bit of the back-and- forth between the candidates.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I have some news.
(Soundbite of crowd laughing)
Sen. JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Al- Qaida is in Iraq. Al-Qaida - it's called al-Qaida in Iraq.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I have some news for John McCain...
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Sen. OBAMA: And that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.
MARTIN: McCain said Thursday that the current strategy in Iraq is working and it would be a mistake to pull troops out. A new poll from the Pew Research Center, also released yesterday, shows many Americans agree, 47% say they favor keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized, the highest percentage expressing this view in more than a year.
STEWART: Which brings us to today, as word comes of the end of the latest standoff between Iraq and its northern neighbor Turkey. The Turkish military crossed into Northern Iraq more than a week ago to fight a group of Kurdish separatist rebels that have carried out attacks into Turkey. Today's Turkey's military says it's back on its side of the border after achieving its goals.
MARTIN: But is this the end of the long-standing battle between Turkey and Kurdish rebels? What are the stakes involved in that particular conflict?
Let's turn now to Aliza Marcus. She's a journalist who's covered the region and recently wrote the book, "Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence."
Ms. ALIZA MARCUS (Journalist): Hi.
MARTIN: Thanks for joining us. This long-standing battle between Turkey and the Kurdish rebels, known as the PKK, it's been heating up since last December. That's when Turkish warplanes carried out a series of attacks against suspected rebel hideouts in Northern Iraq. The Turkish government told U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week that they would not withdraw unless all of these military bases, these PKK strongholds were destroyed.
Now that the Turkish military is pulling back, is there any indication as to whether or not they achieved their objectives?
Ms. MARCUS: There's no indication that they've actually managed to destroy all of the PKK bases, and it's highly unlikely that they did. This isn't the first time they've gone into Northern Iraq. They've been doing it multiple times over the past 15 years, and they've never managed to wipe out PKK bases completely.
MARTIN: Secretary Gates was in Turkey this week. He sent a very stern message to the Turkish government, that the offensive should wrap up within days. Let's listen that.
Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): The current operation must be as short and as precisely targeted as possible.
MARTIN: Aliza, how much difference did U.S. pressure make in this? I mean, he didn't come out and say, you need to do this now, but they were putting some heavy pressure.
Ms. MARCUS: Well, the Turkish military said very clearly that they didn't pull back their troops because of U.S. pressure. But certainly the fact that the U.S. had spoken out so strongly against this and that the Iraq government had taken a very harsh position must have affected Turkey because they are sensitive to these things.
MARTIN: And also the language, the Turkish official said, we will set no timetable for withdrawal - earlier. Is that a direct hit at the U.S. line on Iraq policy? In other words, if you, the United States, get to wage your war in Iraq how you want to, why can't we conduct our military operations there the way we see fit?
Ms. MARCUS: Yes, I think Turkish officials very much feel that they should be allowed a free hand to fight against a group that they consider to be a terrorist organization. And that the Untied States is also called a terrorist organization. The fact that they said they wouldn't set a limit and then withdrew, doesn't mean that they're not going to go back in, for example. I mean, I think they have made clear that if they feel under threat again, they will cross the border, despite opposition from the United States.
MARTIN: Aliza, remind us who are the PKK. What are their goals?
Ms. MARCUS: The PKK is a Turkish Kurdish rebel organization. It's fighting for independence or autonomy inside Turkey. It's been fighting now for about 20 years. And it has a fair amount of support among Turkey's Kurds.
MARTIN: What about the Kurdish government in that part of Iraq? Are they supportive either implicitly or overtly of the PKK?
Ms. MARCUS: No, the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq, which runs the autonomous Kurdistan region, is very much opposed to the PKK's presence on its territory. And in fact, Iraqi Kurds have fought against Turkish Kurdish rebels in the past, but they haven't been able to push them out. And their feeling is that this is a problem between Turkey and its own Kurdish population, and they need to solve it through dialogue. That military means are not going to help.
MARTIN: Explain to us, Aliza, how important is this region geopolitically? The stability in Northern Iraq, keeping this Kurdish situation under control, how important is that to U.S. foreign policy?
Ms. MARCUS: It's incredibly important. For starters, Northern Iraq or the Kurdistan region, is the only part of Iraq that's really stable. The Kurds are a very strong ally of the United States; they've been very supportive of what the U.S. is doing in Iraq. One of the problems is that Syria and Iran also have Kurdish populations, and these populations have also had problems with the central authorities there. And there's a fear that if Turkey stays in Northern Iraq, or invades again, that Syria and Iran might also decide to possibly stage some operations, or that this could inflame Kurdish Kurds in Syria and Iran. So there's a lot going on in that region right now.
MARTIN: So in your assessment, just quickly, where do things stand? This is definitely not the end of this conflict. This is a temporary abatement?
Ms. MARCUS: Yeah, this is a temporary abatement. Because you have to remember that Turkey also has problems with the Iraqi-Kurdish region there. They're concerned that if the Iraqi Kurds go for an independent state and that if Iraq splits up, essentially, that this would lead the Kurds inside Turkey to also really demand, even stronger, some sort of independence and that they might try to break away and might get even more support for that, so turkey sees its stability as resting on the stability of Iraq as well.
MARTIN: High stakes. Aliza Marcus, journalist who's covered the region and recently wrote the book "Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence," thanks very much, Aliza.
Ms. MARCUS: Thank you.