ANKARA (Reuters) - President Jalal Talabani pledged Iraq’s backing for Turkey in its fight against Kurdish PKK rebels on Friday, just one week after Ankara ended a major army ground offensive against the guerrillas in northern Iraq.
His visit, his first to Turkey as head of state, is aimed at boosting political, trade and security ties which have been strained in recent years by the PKK issue and Ankara’s fears that Kurds of northern Iraq aim to build their own state.
“We have requested that the Kurdish administration puts pressure on PKK units to give up their weapons or leave the region,” Talabani said, referring to the government of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.
“We will never accept that they carry out armed attacks against Turkey,” Talabani added at a joint news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
He said that talks would be held on broadening a security cooperation agreement between the two neighbouring countries.
Ankara has been highly critical of Baghdad’s failure to crack down on several thousand Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas who use a remote, mountainous part of northern Iraq as a base from which to stage attacks on targets inside Turkey.
Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, since the group began its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
Gul called in the news conference for the PKK to disarm.
“No country could accept the existence of a terror group on its soil. That is why those who illegally bear weapons should lay them down,” he said.
Angered by a series of deadly PKK attacks last year, Turkey’s parliament gave the military a year-long mandate in October to mount cross-border attacks on the rebels in Iraq.
Turkish warplanes and artillery have been bombing and shelling PKK positions periodically over several months, helped by intelligence provided by U.S. forces in Iraq.
On February 21, the military launched a large-scale ground incursion, sending thousands of troops into the remote Zap Valley against the PKK. Turkey’s General Staff says 240 rebels were killed in the campaign, along with 27 of its own men.
Baghdad criticised the incursion as an infringement of its national sovereignty. The United States, which like Turkey brands the PKK a terrorist organisation, urged Ankara to keep the campaign short and carefully targeted.
Gul said he believed Iraq understood its PKK fight.
Talabani, himself an Iraqi Kurd, will also hold talks with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and attend a meeting of the Turkey-Iraq business council during his two-day visit.
Iraq’s ministers of finance, oil, water resources, national security and industry were travelling with Talabani.
Turkish firms are very active in the construction sector in Iraq, which is also an increasingly important market for Turkish products from food to textiles. A pipeline carries Iraqi oil to Turkey and there are also plans for a natural gas link.
Gul’s predecessor, former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, had refused to invite Talabani to Ankara because of Iraq’s failure to tackle the PKK.
Turkey is also worried that Kurds in northern Iraq, who already enjoy wide regional autonomy, are plotting to build an independent state which Ankara fears could reignite separatist sentiments among its own large Kurdish population.
Writing by Gareth Jones and Daren Butler; editing by Sami Aboudi
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