Turkey Pulls Troops from Iraq
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Turkey says it's withdrawing its troops from Northern Iraq. This morning's announcement came after more than a week of fighting in Iraq's mostly Kurdish region. Turkey was trying to weaken a Kurdish rebel group known as the PKK, which Turkey says has attacked Turkish targets from across the border in Iraq. NPR's Ivan Watson has been following this story and joins us from Istanbul. And Ivan, was this a surprise?
IVAN WATSON: Yes, it was, Renee. Just yesterday the commander of the Turkish military was suggesting this operation could go on for months, and now suddenly the Turkish military has posted this announcement on its Web site saying that as of today its troops have returned from Northern Iraq to their bases on Turkish territory.
The Turkish military says it is, quote, "out of the question that the terrorist organization" - meaning the PKK - "is entirely eliminated with one regional operation." But it added a list of weapons and caves that were supposedly destroyed and added claims that up to 240 PKK fighters were killed in this eight days of fighting, while some 24 Turkish soldiers were killed throughout the clashes.
MONTAGNE: Well, just yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Turkish leaders while he was in that country that they should end the offensive as soon as possible. So how much was this withdrawal, do you think, a result of U.S. pressure?
WATSON: The interesting thing is the Turkish military made the point of adding to their announcement that, quote, "No internal or external influences were a factor in this decision to pull out of Northern Iraq." But you cannot deny the fact that just yesterday the U.S. defense secretary was in the Turkish capital saying the operation should end within days or a week or two maximum. And President Bush joined in yesterday publicly urging the Turks to pull out as well.
MONTAGNE: And Iraqi authorities, what are they saying to this pullout?
WATSON: Well, this week the Iraqi government also demanded Turkey's immediate withdrawal from Iraqi territory. Baghdad said that it officially considers the PKK a terrorist organization, much like Turkey, the U.S. and the Europeans do, but said that this is not the correct way to deal with the entrenched PKK presence in the mountains of Northern Iraq, that it should not be done through unilateral Turkish military incursion, and the government in Baghdad condemned this action by the Turks.
MONTAGNE: This battle between the Kurds in Turkey and Turkey, the government, the country, is a long-running one. What's likely to happen next?
WATSON: Well, probably both sides will claim victory as the Turkish military already is, publicizing the number of rebel guns and bases that Turkish soldiers supposedly destroyed in this operation. I talked to a PKK spokesman in Northern Iraq on Wednesday and he was claiming at that point that the PKK had only lost five fighters in the battle and that they had killed hundreds of Turkish soldiers and not lost any territory at all.
But what is interesting throughout this is that the PKK has not been able to generate the kind of public support that it enjoyed among the millions of ethnic Kurds in Turkey in the 1990s. There was a rally in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir earlier this week, and barely 10,000 demonstrators showed up to support the PKK in a city that was populated by close to a million Kurds that in the '90s the PKK could have just shut down with a citywide strike rather easily.
The PKK also made a public appeal for Kurds in Turkey to rise up and rebel against the Turkish state, but we have not seen street clashes throughout Turkish cities or even really acts of violence.
MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much.
WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking from Istanbul in Turkey on news today that Turkey has ended its ground offensive in Northern Iraq.