Thursday, March 26, 2009

Turkey breaks with past, seeks ties with Iraqi Kurds

By Paul de Bendern BAGHDAD, March 25 (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul's recognition of the Kurdistan government in northern Iraq and his talks with the autonomous region's leader on fighting Kurdish guerrillas mark a breakthrough for regional stability. In just two days Gul has helped reduce tensions and break down barriers between the Turkish state and its ethnic Kurdish minority as well as with neighbouring Iraqi Kurds. "The visit was a public gesture. We now expect cooperation to speed up between Turkey and northern Iraqi authorities," a senior Turkish official, who declined to be named, told Reuters. "But results won't happen overnight." Tensions have been the source of instability for years, not only in Turkey's restive southeast but also across the border, where thousands of separatist Turkish PKK rebels are based. Acknowledging the existence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has enjoyed de facto autonomy from Baghdad since 1991, has been taboo among Turkish politicians mindful of reigniting Kurdish hopes of statehood on Turkish soil. Ankara has long refused to talk to the KRG for not doing enough to crack down on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, who use the area as a base to attack southeast Turkey. "Regional problems must be solved in a peaceful way," Gul told Reuters during a two-day trip to Baghdad, the first by a Turkish head of state since 1976. The outlawed PKK has fought Turkish forces since 1984 in a conflict that has killed 40,000 people. Turkey's tough stance on Kurdish rights has hurt Ankara's bid to join the European Union. The ruling AK Party has given Kurds more cultural and political rights. A Kurdish-language television station has started and the Koran can now be published in Kurdish. Gul invited Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani for talks in Baghdad on Tuesday, the first time a Turkish leader has formally agreed to meet an official from the KRG. "Gul's trip and the results are proof Turkey is normalising and seeking stability in the region. It is not just lip service," said leading Turkish commentator Mehmet Ali Birand. "Turkey must now make sure it did not bite off more than it could chew. Pressure is now on the Kurdish government, but Turkey will soon have to deliver too." Pressure also mounted on the PKK this week after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, said the PKK must lay down its arms or quit Iraq. Barzani echoed his comments. The trip to the Iraqi capital is part of a comprehensive drive by the Turkish government to resolve long-standing issues with its neighbours. It is also a recognition by Ankara that keeping old conflicts frozen ultimately hurts Turkey. Gul became the first Turkish head of state to travel to Armenia last year. The two countries do not have any diplomatic ties, although work is under way to improve relations. "You see, they (efforts on northern Iraq and Armenia) are all well received," Gul told Reuters, saying breaking taboos in Turkey appeared more difficult than they really were. RIVALRY The Kurdish region of northern Iraq, made up of three provinces along the border with Iran and Turkey, already has a high degree of autonomy, with its own flag, its own international airport and its own powerful government. But improving ties with Turkey has recently gained urgency as Iraqi Kurdish leaders fear the risks of a more powerful central government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials said. As insurgent violence subsides, a major threat is seen in growing tension between Maliki and the Kurds. The issue of Kirkuk is particularly sensitive as the city sits on some of the largest oil reserves in Iraq. "(KRG President) Massoud Barzani needs Turkey more than ever as Maliki gets stronger and this will become more evident when U.S. troops start leaving Iraq," said a Turkish diplomat. Gul also sought to ease tensions between Barzani and Maliki during his Baghdad visit, another Turkish diplomat said. Improving ties with Iraq, and thus influence, is also driven by concern in Turkey that non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran is gaining too much influence in the country. Turkey is also among Iraq's most important trading partners. "If the KRG succeeds in enhancing the political and economic ties with Turkey, then definitely Turkey will spontaneously defend the Kurdish region to protect its vital interests, especially economic ones," said Safen Dizate, head of foreign affairs for the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani. Gul said: "Once the PKK is eliminated there are no bounds to what is possible: you are our neighbours and kinsmen." (Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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