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Turkey Sends Message to Kurds Through US

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan is visiting Washington for talks with U.S. President George Bush about dealing with Kurdish rebels who have been attacking Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. Turkey is threatening to launch military operations into Iraq to deal with the rebels and to possibly impose economic sanctions. But as VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Istanbul, some say Turkey is also sending a strong political message to the United States and the Kurds of Iraq.

Turkish officials say the outcome of the talks in Washington will largely determine what, if any, action Turkey takes. They insist all options remain open - from a large-scale military incursion to trade sanctions.

The conflict goes back decades, to 1984 when the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, took up arms against the government for an autonomous Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. Tensions flared again last month after a deadly ambush against Turkish soldiers by rebels who had come across the border from northern Iraq.

Turkey has warned that if the Iraqi government and the U.S. military do not deal with the rebels, Turkey will.

In an exclusive interview with VOA in Istanbul, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari again urged restraint and warned of the implications of military action.

"Any major military incursion will destabilize the one single most stable part of Iraq and this could undo many of the achievements on the security front, on the economic front - to undo them, which is in nobody's interests," he said.

The Iraqi government has promised to take tougher actions against the rebels, but it is not immediately clear if this would be enough to satisfy Turkey.

Iraq analyst, Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group tells VOA he considers economic sanctions more likely than a large-scale military operation, which he says Turkey would be reluctant to carry out without U.S. agreement.

"Economic sanctions are a possibility. I do not think these are the best option for Turkey because all it would do is to create greater enmity between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government in the North [of Iraq], he said. "My sense is that Turkey would be better off to find a political solution to the PKK to have some kind of amnesty, to work out a very close economic relationship with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq."

Hiltermann says Turkey's threats to act against the PKK also signal a deeper, more fundamental concern.

"By putting pressure on the PKK and by asking the American government to put pressure on the PKK, really what Turkey is doing is to ask the Americans to put pressure on the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq in order to keep it down to size and not give it any ideas about future Kurdish independence," added Hiltermann.

Hiltermann says the mere thought of an independent Kurdish state next door is, what he calls, a red line for Turkey. Ankara fears Turkey's own ethnic-Kurdish minority would be encouraged to follow suit and the result would be the unraveling of the modern-day Turkish state.

As it seeks to defuse tensions, the United States is having to play a careful balancing act between two friends - long-time NATO ally Turkey and the staunch Kurdish allies of Iraq.