Monday, December 17, 2007

Iraq, North and South

With Christmas and the first presidential primaries quickly approaching, Iraq seems to have been pushed to the media’s back burner. But that does not mean that important things aren’t happening there.

On Sunday the Turkish military launched a series of air strikes in the far north of Iraq against suspected hideouts of Kurdish militant groups. Kurdish groups (most notably the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK) have long been fighting for an autonomous region in southeastern Turkey. PKK guerillas have used Iraq as a safe haven from which to launch attacks across the border into Turkey.

Skirmishes in this border area are not uncommon, but Sunday’s air strikes involved more than 50 Turkish planes and were the largest action since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Turkey’s prime minister said that further military action was likely. Turkey has thousands of troops massed along the Turkey-Iraq border, and a large-scale invasion was recently averted when President Bush personally asked Turkey to hold off.

Meanwhile at the southern end of Iraq British troops formally handed control of the province of Basra over to Iraqi forces, a move likely to lead to a sharp reduction in Britain’s 5,500-strong force currently deployed in Iraq.

The British press was largely downbeat in their view of the handover. The Times stated that while "security has improved markedly, and investment is beginning to make a difference in Basra city ... it is a fragile peace, and despite glowing tributes at yesterday's handover ceremony.” The Daily Mail took a more negative tone saying: “it is right that we leave Basra ... but let us not regard withdrawal as anything other than a forced retreat."

British troops first withdrew from bases within the city of Basra to a more remote location at an airbase outside of the city due to increasing attacks on their troops. As the British moved out, Shiite militias – with backing from Iran – began exercising more control over the city and province.
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