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Regional Crises Boost Turkey's Ties With Iraq's Kurds

Iraqi Kurdistan region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, left, meets Turkey's President Abdullah Gul in Baghdad, Iraq. (File)
Iraqi Kurdistan region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, left, meets Turkey's President Abdullah Gul in Baghdad, Iraq. (File)
ISTANBUL, Turkey -The prime minister of Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region is visiting Turkey - his first trip there since taking office in March. The visit is expected to build on the growing rapprochement between Turkey and Iraq's Kurds. That process is being enhanced by deepening crises in Iraq and and mutual neighbor Syria.

Political analysts in Turkey see the visit by Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani as a sign of the growing importance of his Turkish neighbor.

Ankara has responded by laying out the red carpet with meetings with the Turkish president, prime minister and foreign minister.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal says the Iraqi Kurds are seen as an important ally.

"The Iraqi Kurds are playing an international role legally and legitimately in all Iraqi politics and we are talking with them on many issues, the political situation in Iraq and in the region," he said.

Barzani's visit comes as tensions continue to rise between Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and the country's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, over the distribution of power and control of resources.

Tensions have also risen between Turkey and Iraq's central government.

International relations expert Soli Ozel, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Haberturk, says these current tensions with Baghdad are driving the warming relations between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds.

"The fact that relations with Baghdad are rotten, it now transpires that the Kurds are the Turks' natural allies in Iraq," said Ozel. "They are our second export market, and people say if you include the informal trade, they may very well be the first export market. And their gas and oil is going to global markets via Turkey. Therefore, we have to discuss what the Iraqi Kurds do, with very different words and with a very different approach, and this is what happening."

The transformation in relations is a marked shift from the past. Only a few years ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Iraqi Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani was a "bandit." The Turkish government believed the Iraqi Kurds were not doing enough to stop the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, from operating from northern Iraq. The PKK is fighting the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights.

Political observers say Ankara's greatest fear was that the Iraqi Kurds would declare an independent state, possibly inciting Turkey's own Kurdish minority to similar demands.

But former senior Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen says the recent visit of Iraqi Kurdistan's President Barzani shows this fear has eased.

"When Barzani came to Ankara a few weeks ago, he made reference to a possible independence of the Kurdish region if Maliki continues to operate in the authoritarian way that he is operating," said Ulgen. "Even that statement, which was unthinkable a couple of years ago for the Turkish policymakers not to react to, has not really led to any sort of reaction from Ankara. That shows how much [relations] have changed."

The conflict in Syria is also providing common ground between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey. Syrian Kurdish groups have been meeting in the Iraqi Kurdish region, and Ankara is lobbying the Iraqi Kurds to use their influence to persuade them to unite with the Syrian opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But international relations expert Ozel remains skeptical whether the Iraqi Kurds can deliver.

"With the Syrian Kurds, the ones who are more influential are not Barzani people, but the PKK," said Ozel. The thing is Turkey wants to subcontract too many things to Barzani, and I don't think it's going to wash."

The prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan is expected to reject Turkey's calls to remove PKK bases from the region. But political observers say the Iraqi Kurdish visit to Turkey will emphasize the growing importance of the relationship and that both sides will be looking to build on what unites them - rather than what divides them.