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Turkish PM Says Iraq is Staging Ground for Kurdish Attacks


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


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met today with President Bush. He is an interesting politician on the far end of an interesting bilateral relationship. Erdogan used to advocate Islamist politics in secular Turkey. He served a jail term for that. Washington and Ankara are strategic partners despite complaints of anti-US sentiment among the Turks. Relations were strained by Turkey's refusal in 2003 to provide a staging ground for US forces to enter Iraq. The US backs Turkish entry into the European Union. Talks are set for October 3rd on that. Also, Turkey faces a domestic insurgency by the PKK, a movement of Turkish Kurds. America's most fervent supporters in Iraq are the Iraqi Kurds. And Prime Minister Erdogan told me yesterday that the PKK is using Iraqi soil as a staging ground for attacks to the north in Turkey.

Prime Minister RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Turkey): (Through Translator) There are at the moment camps of the PKK terrorist organization in northern Iraq. As you know, the Iranian terrorist organization the People's Mujahideen used to operate in this region. After the United States' intervention, the People's Mujahideen was dispersed. We are sharing intelligence with the United States on this matter. The elimination of the terrorist organization is important for the future of Turkey, for the future of Iraq and for the future of the region as a whole.

SIEGEL: Do you think that the United States has the authority to get those PKK camps out of northern Iraq?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) Not having the authority is not an issue. Currently, the United States has a clear mission against terrorist organizations. If terrorist organizations are operating in the region while the United States is standing firm against other terror groups, then why not the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States?

SIEGEL: But what should the United States do? Should it ask the people in Baghdad to get the camps out of northern Iraq? Should it ask the Kurds in Iraq to get the camps out? Should it send troops in and attack the camps in northern Iraq? What do you want the US to do?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) We will discuss these issues with President Bush tomorrow.

SIEGEL: And what will you be saying?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) I believe that the United States and the coalition forces are in the best position to decide what to do more so than us.

SIEGEL: If the Americans whom you meet with in Washington suggest to you that Turkey cool off its relations with Iran and Syria, would you consider doing that?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) Look, these issues need to be reviewed strategically. And, of course, we discuss these issues with our strategic partner. Let's not forget that in our relations with our neighbors, we foster democracy, freedom, the rule of law and human rights. We want to have warm relations with our neighbors in this framework. The only way to address these issues is by discussions.

SIEGEL: So you're saying engagement with Iran, for example, talking with Iran, is a way of assisting the growth of democracy in Iran?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) It's hard to say what will transpire in 10, 20 years. At the time of the revolution, they weren't holding elections as they do now. Now there are women in parliament, Armenians in parliament, there are Shia, Sunnis, various groups in parliament. This couldn't have happened had there not been elections. Now is this ideal? Of course not.

SIEGEL: Do the Americans you talk to agree with your appraisal of the situation in Iran?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) Some do, some don't. Not everybody has to agree, just as I don't have to agree with everyone else.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something that happened to you earlier in your life. You were put in prison. You were tried and convicted, I gather, for reading a poem aloud, for reading an Islamist poem aloud. If someone did that today in Turkey, could they still be arrested and put in jail for doing it?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) First of all, the poem I read was not an Islamist poem. The poet, in fact, was an ideologue of Ataturk. The conviction was passed because it was me who recited the poem. And since we came to power in Turkey, no one has been jailed for expressing their thoughts, ideas or for reciting a poem.

SIEGEL: I guess I should broaden my question. Can one then read any poem in Turkey aloud without fear that one might be arrested or jailed?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) I think that they could, but I'm not the judiciary. As you know, we have the principle of separation of powers in Turkey as you do here. But I could not agree to someone being convicted for this. A person could recite any poem he chooses. It would not be appropriate to arrest someone as long as the poem isn't insulting or disrespectful to beliefs. Especially now with the constitutional amendments we have carried out and the democratic reforms we have undertaken, this is no longer possible.

SIEGEL: Do you regard the votes in France and in the Netherlands about the European Constitution in effect a message to Ankara saying, `Western Europe does not want Turkey in the European Union'?

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) It's not possible for me to say yes to this question. This vote had nothing to do with Turkey. The referendum was on the European Union's constitution.

SIEGEL: But Turkey was part of the backdrop. Turkey is one of the issues surrounding Europe.

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) They're using Turkey for political ends; this hasn't worked. In France, they looked at the reasons behind the no votes, and the first reason is unemployment and then there are the economic parameters. Turkey is not amongst the reasons. Turkey is focused on October the 3rd. There is no question about Turkey's prospects for EU membership.

SIEGEL: You say that you will become a member of the EU.

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) We're continuing on our path in a very determined manner.

SIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prime Min. ERDOGAN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the prime minister of Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
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