Turkey throws weight around region

The Turkish prime minister is expected to visit Baghdad in the coming days to talk about the PKK and trade.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, left, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan exchange a signed memorandum to speed up work to finalize a counterterrorism agreement after their talks in Ankara, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007. Turkey and Iraq agreed to try to root out a Kurdish rebel group from northern Iraq, but Maliki said he would not sign an agreement implementing the promise until it was put to his parliament.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
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ISTANBUL // The Turkish prime minister will visit Baghdad today, becoming the first Turkish head of government to visit the neighbouring country since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan reinforces Turkey's singular role in Middle Eastern politics as a western-leaning Muslim country, but also points to difficulties at home. The office of Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, confirmed last night that Mr Erdogan would fly to Iraq today for a one-day visit. The timing of the visit, like the visit of all foreign leaders to Iraq, was kept secret until the last moment for security reasons.

Mr Erdogan will be travelling with several members of his cabinet and is to meet Mr Maliki and Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, in the Green Zone, the heavily barricaded diplomatic area of Iraq's capital, media reported. Mr Erdogan and his Iraqi hosts are likely to talk about how to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity, including the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a Kurdish-majority city that Ankara is concerned could become the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state if it were to be included in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Contacts between the two governments have intensified in recent months. Ali Babacan, the Turkish foreign minister, and Ahmet Davutoglu, a close foreign policy adviser of Mr Erdogan, have visited Baghdad and Mr Maliki travelled to Ankara last year. Mr Erdogan's trip has been expected for some time. When Mr Davutoglu met Mr Talabani in Baghdad in May, he carried a message from Mr Erdogan that said he was willing to visit Iraq. Murat Ozcelik, Turkey's special Iraq envoy, met Mr Maliki in Baghdad last month to prepare the prime minister's visit. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, has also said he is ready to visit Baghdad.

Turkish press reports said the two sides will sign an agreement aimed at strengthening bilateral relations during Mr Erdogan's visit. Energy and trade will also be discussed, newspapers said. The pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak reported yesterday that Hilmi Guler, the energy minister, and Kursat Tuzmen, the foreign trade minister, would travel with Mr Erdogan. Among energy issues between the two countries are Kurdistan's electrical supply, which comes from Turkey, and vandalism of oil pipelines.

The most pressing issue on the table, however, remains rebel Kurds. Hurriyet, a daily Turkish newspaper, reported on its website, that getting the camps closed is a priority Turkey will bring up. Turkey sent thousands of troops into northern Iraq in February to flush out rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, who have attacked targets within Turkey from Iraq. Mr Erdogan secured US backing for limited attacks against the PKK on Iraqi territory last year. Washington supports Turkey's actions against the rebels with real-time intelligence data. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Ankara, Washington and Baghdad.

But although the PKK's presence in northern Iraq is one of the main problems in Turkish-Iraqi relations, Ankara has been careful to limit direct contacts with the regional government of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq for fear of enhancing the status of the Kurdish administration there. Mr Davutoglu met representatives of the Kurdish region in Baghdad, but Mr Erdogan is expected to meet only with members of the central Iraqi government.

Under Mr Erdogan's government, Turkey has started to conduct a more active Middle East policy in recent years. While maintaining its traditional ties with Israel, Ankara has improved its relations with such countries as Syria, leading to indirect talks between Tel Aviv and Damascus in Istanbul. Relations with Iran have also taken a turn for the better. Last month, the Turkish army said it was co-operating with the Iranian military in its fight against the PKK. Turkey also sent soldiers to Lebanon to serve with UN troops there. Parliament in Ankara decided late yesterday to prolong the mission for another year.

Mr Erdogan's reported trip to Baghdad comes at a critical time for the Turkish prime minister, whose Justice and Development Party, or AKP, faces a possible ban by the constitutional court for alleged Islamist tendencies. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks. "You can say what you want, but Turkey is the most important country" in the region, Husnu Mahalli, a Syrian writer and Middle East analyst, said in a column for the daily Aksam. "And the prime minister of this country is going to Baghdad." Mr Mahalli said it was important for Turkey's future regional role that the AKP case be decided as soon as possible. "An Ankara that is occupied with its own domestic problems will of course not have the power and strength to get involved in issues in its surroundings."