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New Summit Expected, Amid Cautious Warming of Turkey-Iraq Relations


A series of diplomatic visits between Iraq and Turkey in recent months has signaled a warming of relations that is expected to continue with a visit to Baghdad by Turkey's prime minister in the near future. Turkey's previous reluctance to engage Baghdad stemmed from its mistrust of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, whom Ankara accused of backing Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast. But as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, Ankara now appears to see the Iraqi Kurds as a potential ally in its war against the rebels.

The warming of relations began after Turkey sent troops across the border into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to go after members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for nearly 25 years.

Ankara, which says the PKK uses Iraq as a base to strike its forces in Turkey, has accused the Iraqi Kurdish leadership of tacitly supporting the rebel group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

But relations between the two countries began to change when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, visited Ankara in early March, and met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul.

Mr. Gul said Turkey and Iraq should work together as neighbors, but added that Turkey would never accept the existance of the "PKK terrorists." The visit came a week after Turkey's ground offensive against PKK bases inside Iraq.

In a gesture to Turkey, Mr. Talabani, who is an Iraqi Kurd, said Baghdad had ordered northern Iraq's Kurdish government to pressure PKK rebels to give up their weapons. He said Iraq will not allow the PKK to use its territory to stage attacks on Turkey.

The United States has said it is assisting Turkey with intelligence on PKK fighters in Iraq. But Washington has voiced concern that Turkish attacks in Iraq could further destabilize that country, particularly the mostly peaceful, autonomous Kurdistan region.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Ankara during Turkey's ground incursion, encouraged Turkey to pursue diplomacy.

"It should be clear military action alone will not end this terrorist threat," said Robert Gates. "While it is certainly part of the equation, there must be simultaneous efforts with non-military initiative and political outreach."

Soli Ozel is an international relations expert at Bilgi University. Ozel argues the recent support Washington has given Ankara in its battle against the PKK has opened the door to a change in relations with Iraq.

"It's a quite a big shift," said Soli Ozel. "The ingredients for it have been there. The main obstacle was the Turkish military, and it seems the Turkish military have also come close to absorbing this new position, and part of the reason I suppose for this is that America is giving the Turkish military everything that it wants in terms of intelligence. So, the PKK is being fought against, and even the Turkish military now begins to see that the Americans are not going to support the Iraqi Kurds for independence."

In May, a senior Turkish official met with the prime minister of northern Iraq's Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani. It was the first direct high-level meeting between Turkey and Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, and reports say they discussed a number of political, security and economic issues.

Soli Ozel says the growing rapprochement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds is beneficial to Iraqi Kurds, as well as Turkey, particularly economically.

"Greater trade, probably investment, especially in the oil business in the region, getting Iraqi gas out of there to the world market through Turkey," said Ozel. "I mean, I think the possibilities are immense, perhaps even limitless."

Any improvement in trade would also likely bring relief to Turkey's impoverished, predominantly Kurdish southeast, which borders Iraq. Crippling high unemployment is seen as a major recruiting agent for the PKK in the region. But observers warn with decades of mistrust existing between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds the road to a genuine rapprochement remains a difficult one. And, Turkey continues to launch cross-border air strikes on suspected PKK bases in northern Iraq, most recently this past week.

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