By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL, April 3 (Reuters) - Turkey’s only legal Kurdish party will call on U.S. President Barack Obama during a rare meeting next week to help end a 25-year separatist conflict, signalling the expanded role Kurds play in Turkish politics.
Obama will make his first visit as a president to a Muslim country next week, seeking to boost ties with a NATO ally. He will also meet Turkish opposition leaders, including Ahmet Turk, head of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).
The conflict in southeast Turkey, which has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people, is a destabilising factor in the region. Ties between Turkey and Iraq have also suffered as thousands of separatist rebels are based in northern Iraq.
But better cooperation between Turkey, Iraq and the United States, including intelligence sharing, has weakened the PKK. Ankara has also started to address grievances by the Kurdish minority, which has long complained of discrimination.
"We expect the American president to help seek a resolution of the Kurdish issue," Selahattin Demirtas, deputy head of DTP’s parliamentary group, told Reuters on Friday.
"This is acknowledgement that the DTP represents the Kurdish issue and a peaceful resolution to the conflict," he said.
The DTP has long been accused of being the mouthpiece of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It refuses calls by other parties to declare the PKK a terrorist organisation as it is labelled by Turkey, the United States and the EU.
It will be the first time a U.S. leader will hold talks, even if they are only expected to be very brief, with the head of a Kurdish party in parliament.
The meeting was part of a normalisation of the Kurdish issue in Turkey that began with political reforms aimed at meeting European Union membership requirements, said Sahin Alpay, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.
Ankara won European Union accession talks status in 2005 but has been criticised for being slow in improving cultural and political rights of the Kurdish minority, which makes up around 15 percent of the population.
The DTP, the first pro-Kurdish party in parliament since 1994, is on trial for alleged ties to the PKK and faces possible closure if found guilty. The DTP denies the charges.
Turk will hand Obama written proposals the party says can help end the conflict, including an amnesty for guerrillas and constitutional amendments to protect basic Kurdish rights.
Turk’s proposals also call for limited autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds, such as direct elections to a provincial government in the mainly Kurdish southeast, Demirtas said.
"Kurds don’t want war but want a peaceful resolution within Turkish borders that includes greater democracy," Demirtas said.
Turkey has rejected a general amnesty for guerrillas, but has taken a more conciliatory tone towards finding a solution, as President Abdullah Gul’s groundbreaking visit to Iraq showed.
Demirtas said the DTP would not call on the PKK to lay down its arms, despite growing pressure to do so. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, did just that last month.
"The U.S. is still the authority in northern Iraq, and that makes Obama a party to the issue," Demirtas said. "We believe he can help to end the conflict peacefully." (Editing by Paul de Bendern and Giles Elgood)