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Tensions high in northern Iraq

'A wild-card political development'

From Kevin Sites
CNN

CNN's Kevin Sites reporting via videophone
CNN's Kevin Sites reporting via videophone

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
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CHAMCHAMAL, Kurdish-controlled Iraq (CNN) -- Coalition forces are concerned by reports that Turkish troops have entered Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

U.S. officials said that, while they have not seen a large movement of Turkish forces into northern Iraq, they have seen a buildup of Turkish armor and infantry on the border with Iraq, presumably an effort to prevent a flow of refugees into their country.

Also in the north, near the Iranian border, U.S. forces were targeting Ansar al-Islam, the fundamentalist group that the Bush administration says is linked to al Qaeda.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper spoke with CNN's Kevin Sites from Chamchamal, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, about these recent developments.

SITES: Anderson, I'm in Chamchamal, which is midway between Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk.

Some of the Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] here are getting a little bit excited. We're very, very close to the Iraqi front lines here just about two kilometers away. We've been watching movements of troops here and they seem to think that there's movement some of these Iraqi troops are coming a little too close to the border point area. They're worried that, possibly, there may be a defector here. We'll get back to you more on that later.

The major issue at play here, though, various sources say, is that the U.S. special forces may actually use air strips in northern Iraq Kurdish air strips to launch operations. They're getting very frustrated with the Turkish government, very frustrated it took a long time to get fly-over permission. And they're also frustrated about the reports of Turkish troops entering Kurdistan. That creates quite a wild-card political development here. The Kurds and the Turks are sworn enemies. Many of the Peshmerga say if the Turks come into Kurdistan that they'll fight them first.

The U.S. really can't afford this right now. They want a unified Iraq after this war is over. They need Kurdish support and right now it looks like Turkish troops here would provoke possibly a fight with the Kurdish fighters, with the Peshmerga. It's something that the U.S. doesn't want to see happening right now. Initially we had reports of a thousand troops coming into Kurdistan. Now there are reports of possibly even more.

Now on another flank the border with Iran and Iraq Ansar al-Islam is the fundamentalist group, the "mini-Taliban" as some people have called them, that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has linked ... with Saddam Hussein. He says that this is his al Qaeda connection. .... Saddam Hussein's connection to the al Qaeda is with Ansar al-Islam. Now they're located in Kurdish territory, so it was an interesting observation that he made.

And the U.S. military must think so as well. They fired apparently, according to our sources here, 30 cruise missiles at Ansar al-Islam locations along that border with Iran and Iraq. Now those targets may have softened up a little bit and PUK sources Patriotic Union of Kurdistan sources tell us they may now attack Ansar al-Islam, either today or tomorrow. This is another area that they're quite worried about. Ansar al-Islam has harassed Kurdish fighters here. There's been pretty much sporadic fighting on a daily basis between the border with Ansar al-Islam and these Kurdish fighters and now it looks like there may be a Kurdish offensive on that front.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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