Turkish Troops Enter Iraq; Cleric Extends Truce
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION for NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
On this Friday morning one part of Iraq is becoming more violent, even as another part welcomes a longer ceasefire. We're going to catch up on both developments, today. And we begin in Baghdad, one of the areas affected by the announcement of a Shiite Muslim leader. He says his powerful militia will stay quiet another six months.
NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the move by Muqtada al-Sadr. And, Peter, how significant is it when Sadr says his militia is not going to be shooting?
PETER KENYON: It's very significant, Steve. I mean the surge of five extra U.S. military brigades has been credited with quite a bit of the pacification of Iraq in the last several months. But this ceasefire from the Mahdi Army, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, is another very key part of that. It's had an especial affect in reducing the sectarian violence, the Sunni-Shiite violence that really has plagued people here. Many of the refugees we talked to said it wasn't so much the bombs, the insurgent attacks, but the execution-style sectarian violence that really drove them from their homes. So when Sheikh Sadr says that he's going to continue this for another six months, that's important news here.
INSKEEP: Well, given how critical this man has been to the United States, what would make him make this move that is seen as so favorable to the U.S. and its efforts?
KENYON: Well, he has been under pressure from many of his top lieutenants to end this ceasefire as of Sunday. But he's also looking at the larger political picture, I think. And in that framework, he is a more important player in Iraq, as someone partly responsible for the recent improvements in security, rather than as a militia leader whose forces are contributing to sectarian violence. If Sadr wants to have a serious role in Iraq's future, there has to be some kind of reconciliation among the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite communities. And Sadr doesn't want to leave that Shiite role exclusively to the other Shiite parties, those who follow the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. So politically, extending the ceasefire works for him.
INSKEEP: A reminder that he is, in effect, a politician as well as a religious and militia leader.
That's what's happening in Baghdad. Let's go next to northern Iraq where Iraq's neighbor Turkey has sent troops across the border. NPR's Ivan Watson has covered this region for many years. And, Ivan, what are the Turks doing?
IVAN WATSON: Well, they announced - the Turkish military announced that the operation began Thursday night.
The Turkish media is reporting up to 10,000 soldiers have crossed the border, a distance of about five miles, into Iraqi territory. We haven't been able to confirm those numbers, but U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish officials have confirmed that some soldiers have, in fact, crossed the border. This advance followed hours of Turkish cross-border artillery bombardments yesterday, as well as a series of Turkish airstrikes, which destroyed several important bridges - according to Iraqi Kurdish officials.
And in a sign of the tensions along that border, Iraqi Kurdish officials say that at one location, yesterday, their militiamen surrounded a column of advancing Turkish soldiers and tanks yesterday and, after a very tense standoff, forced them to withdraw without firing a shot.
INSKEEP: Well, who are the Turks targeting?
WATSON: The Turks say that this ground operation is part of their long campaign against the Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK. Now the Iraqi Kurds disagree with that description of this action. They say that the Turks are using the PKK as a pretext to threaten the Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turks have never made a secret of the fact that they firmly oppose any Iraqi Kurdish move towards independence or greater autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.
INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much, gentlemen. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon and Ivan Watson, bringing us up to date on the latest news from Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
INSKEEP: It's okay.
KENYON: Not an unusual thing. But so far on the incursion it's been mostly silence from the Iraqis, though we did get a notice from President Jalal Talabani's office. He is an Iraqi Kurd. But he spoke with the Turkish president yesterday and did accept an invitation to visit Turkey in the near future. And the fear, of course, is that any clash could widen to include Iraqi Kurdish forces. So that's what we're watching very closely.
INSKEEP: And very, very briefly, are things relatively peaceful or what is the mood like as Sadr ends that ceasefire - extends that ceasefire I should say in Baghdad?
KENYON: It's mainly a mood of relief. They'd been hoping and expecting this to be extended. And that gives real hope for some national reconciliation, if Iraqi politicians can get their acts together this spring and summer.
INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, as well as NPR's Ivan Watson.
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