Turkish Troops Bolster Mountainous Iraq Border Iraqi leaders are vowing to crack down on the Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK as Turkish troops gather at Iraq's mountainous northern border. Diplomatic talks between Turkey and Iraq on Tuesday brought promises, but it's unclear what Baghdad can do to rein in the Kurdish rebels.
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Turkish Troops Bolster Mountainous Iraq Border

Hear NPR's Ivan Watson and Melissa Block

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

With Turkish troops gathering at Iraq's mountainous northern border, Iraqi leaders are bound to crack down on the Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK. Turkey has threatened to cross the border to strike at PKK fighters. That's after 12 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight were kidnapped by the PKK over the weekend.

Diplomatic talks between Turkey and Iraq today brought promises. But it's unclear what Baghdad can do to rein in those Kurdish rebels.

NPR's Ivan Watson spoke to me about the build up today from southeastern Turkey near the Iraqi border.

IVAN WATSON: Melissa, here, I don't really see signs of any dramatic changes. This was already a heavily militarized area with police gendarme and army checkpoints, ports and bases all throughout the countryside. I did see one military transport helicopter. I was not allowed to get within 25 miles of the border. I was stopped at an army checkpoint that is stopping journalists just a few miles from where PKK rebels blew up a bridge in an ambush on Sunday.

BLOCK: And when they stopped you, Ivan, what happened?

WATSON: Well, they were surprisingly friendly with me. I'm an American journalist, of course. And they were friendly with me despite the fact that American approval levels are in their all-time low here in Turkey, and despite the fact that many of the soldiers themselves said that they believed the U.S. military was working alongside the PKK. That's a common belief here in Turkey.

For the most part, these soldiers were conscripts doing their mandatory army service. And in a radio room of one army checkpoint, we heard an officer answering nonstop calls from the concerned families of these conscripted soldiers. They were calling to find out if their sons deployed around this turbulent region, if they were still alive.

One other surprising thing I noticed, Melissa, was that some of the Turkish soldiers returning at sunset to their base from patrols, they were traveling in a civilian truck. And some of the officers were actually wearing civilian clothes. They said this was to disguise themselves to protect them from ambushes from these deadly roadside bombs.

BLOCK: Hmm. Ivan, how much support would there be for the PKK among the Kurds who live in southeastern Turkey where you are now?

WATSON: We stopped at a town called Yuksekova within 30 miles of the Iraqi border. There, the population is overwhelmingly Kurdish and the mayor of Yuksekova is from a Kurdish Nationalist Party with links to the PKK. He said every family in that region had relatives at some point who had been with the PKK, who had had relatives who had died in battle. In fact, he said two of his sons were PKK members who died in battle and he had a daughter who is still up in the mountains fighting with the rebels against the Turkish state. And his party office also had photos of a half dozen other killed PKK fighters from Yuksekova who had all died in the southeastern Turkey over the last year.

The mayor went on to say that if Turkey would provide a general amnesty to the PKK, then many of these fighters, like his daughter, would probably lay down their weapons and come down from the mountains.

BLOCK: Ivan, you've spent time on both sides of that border. Can you help us understand if the Turkish forces were to invade, were to go into Iraq, what would they face as they try to root out the PKK?

WATSON: On the other side of the border, Melissa, there is a band of territory where you do not have paved roads, where you have deep ravines, high mountains where there's already snow at this time, where the PKK themselves, the fighters are living in very Spartan austere conditions. They are surviving on the most basic food stuffs, living on mountaintops. These are hardened fighters who scare even the militia fighters of the Iraqi Kurdish factions that have ruled northern Iraq for the past 15 years.

The Turks have fought these militia fighters in the past. And they would be likely to face fierce resistance from these fighters who excelled, from what I'm told, at the order - of guerilla war in these mountains which haven't really been controlled by any government since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

BLOCK: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking with us from southeastern Turkey. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you can read about the history of tensions along the Turkish-Iraqi border at npr.org.

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