ANKARA, (Reuters) – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani began his first visit as head of state to neighbouring Turkey on Friday, just one week after Ankara ended a major army ground offensive against Kurdish PKK rebels based in northern Iraq.
Talabani’s visit is aimed at boosting political, trade, energy and security ties with NATO member Turkey, badly strained in recent years by the Kurdish PKK issue and by Ankara’s fears that the Kurds of northern Iraq aim to build their own state.
Talabani, himself a northern Iraqi Kurd, will hold talks with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during his two-day visit and also attend a meeting of the Turkey-Iraq business council.
Iraq’s ministers of finance, oil, water resources, national security and industry were travelling with Talabani, Turkish diplomats said. Talabani and Gul were due to give a joint news conference at 1800 GMT on Friday.
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.
“With Talabani’s visit, Ankara wants to make a new start in relations with Iraq,” wrote columnist Murat Yetkin in Friday’s edition of the liberal daily Radikal.
Gul’s predecessor as Turkish 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 a strong degree of regional autonomy, are plotting to build an independent state which Ankara fears could reignite separatist sentiments among its own large Kurdish population.
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.
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 Feb. 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.