- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

From combined dispatches

ANKARA, Turkey — U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Monday reviewed touchy regional issues that have led to coolness between their countries, but Mr. Gul said ties between the two NATO allies, described by both parties as a “strategic partnership,” will remain intact.

One of the reasons for the chill in bilateral ties is the presence in northern Iraq of an estimated 5,000 militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey holds responsible for a civil conflict that claimed about 37,000 lives in the country’s southeast from 1984 to 1999.

Clashes tapered off after a rebel truce in 1999, but there has been a surge in violence since June, when the rebels declared an end to the cease-fire, saying Turkey had not responded in kind.

Trilateral talks sought

“We are going to have, we hope in the near future, a trilateral meeting here to discuss the whole question of the PKK,” Mr. Armitage said after the talks. He did not elaborate. Ankara wants U.S. forces in Iraq to curb PKK’s activities.

Another bone of contention is Ankara’s unhappiness with the Kurds’ expulsion of Turkish-speaking Iraqi Turkmen from oil-rich Kirkuk. The Kurds themselves had been expelled from the area by Arabs under Saddam Hussein.

“There have been many segments of Iraqi society who have had their situation changed by force,” Mr. Armitage told reporters. “The Turkmens are, of course, in this category and the Kurds themselves have been forced out, of particularly Kirkuk, to some degree.

“These are things that have to be corrected in the transitional administrational law … to redress these wrongs for all those who are dispossessed,” he said.

Kurdish break feared

Turkey fears that Kurdish control of the Kirkuk oil fields — among the richest in Iraq — could encourage Iraqi Kurds to break away from Baghdad and fan separatist sentiment among Kurds in southeastern Turkey, causing new turmoil in the region.

“We stressed our concern over Kirkuk,” said a Turkish diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We explained that we had serious concerns over efforts to change the demographic structure [because] … this could lead to serious problems.”

The diplomat said Mr. Armitage assured Mr. Gul he is discussing the matter with Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, allies of the United States and leaders of the two mainstream Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, which borders Turkey.

The troubled electoral process in Iraq also was discussed, the Turkish source said, with Mr. Gul stressing “the need to hold the election in the soundest manner and with as much participation as possible.”

Sunni vote uncertain

The Turkish concern follows growing indications that Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, will either boycott the Jan. 30 elections or be prevented from taking part because of a spreading insurgency.

“We very much wish the elections to be held on time. We believe it is very important for Sunni Arabs to take part in the polls. We believe that would be very important for Iraq’s integrity,” Mr. Gul told reporters after the talks with Mr. Armitage.

“We hope the elections will kick off the political process in Iraq, which in turn may pave the way for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq,” he added.

The Gul-Armitage talks came hours before the Turkish minister left Ankara on a fence-mending visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Armitage said he stressed “the window of opportunity that exists with the upcoming January 9 Palestinian election.”

Palestinian poll nears

“We think that the new Palestinian leadership should be supportive of the revived peace process and make sure that no one resorts to political violence,” Mr. Armitage said. “Our policy remains that of a search for a comprehensive solution.”

Ties between longtime allies Washington and Ankara were additionally strained by the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Anti-American sentiment has increased in mainly Muslim but secular Turkey, especially after the U.S. offensive on the rebel stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq, in November.

One senior Turkish lawmaker accused U.S. troops of committing genocide in Iraq, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told Vice President Dick Cheney of Turkey’s concerns about the Fallujah offensive.

But Mr. Gul said on Monday that Turkey attaches great importance to ties with the United States. “Turkish-American ties come above everything else; they are traditional,” he said.

Mr. Armitage also met parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc and Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of Turkey’s general staff.

Israel friendship ‘solid’

In Jerusalem yesterday, Mr. Gul also assured Israel of the strength of its relationship with Turkey.

“Our friendship is solid,” he said at a press briefing with his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom. This was Turkey’s most senior-level official visit to Israel since the Justice and Development Party, a movement with Islamist roots, came to power in Ankara in 2002.

Tensions escalated in May, when Mr. Erdogan condemned a deadly Israeli operation in the Rafah region of southern Gaza Strip as “state terrorism” and Ankara temporarily recalled its ambassador.

It was the biggest chill in Turkish-Israeli relations since 1996, when, to the anger of Arab nations and Iran, the two countries clinched a military cooperation accord, followed by a sharp increase in trade and cultural exchanges.

“We agreed to intensify our collaboration to bring bilateral ties to new highs,” Mr. Shalom said yesterday, hailing Israel’s “deep friendship and intimate dialogue” with Turkey.

Mr. Gul stressed that his country is eager to do all it can to help revive the Middle East peace process and said Syria, too, wants to participate.

‘New climate’ noted

“There is a new climate in the region. … This opportunity should not be missed,” he said. “I believe [the Syrians] wish to seek a lasting peace in the region.”

Mr. Gul told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that “the Syrian signals are serious and their intentions are good.”

Mr. Gul’s trip to Israel came hot on the heels of a high-profile visit by Mr. Erdogan to Damascus late last month.

Turkey thinks it can help with peace initiatives regionwide, drawing on its close ties with Israel and the Palestinians, and the remarkable improvement in its relations with Syria, a former foe.

Mr. Erdogan told parliament yesterday that Turkey wants to regain its leadership role in mediating peace in the Middle East.

“Turkey’s regional importance is resurfacing as the country contributes to making peace in the region and reactivates the regional role it relinquished a long time ago,” he said.

He voiced optimism about finding peaceful settlements to the conflict between Israel and Syria, noting that Turkey has offered to mediate.

Gul to meet Qureia, Abbas

The idea, however, appears to have attracted little enthusiasm from Israel.

Mr. Shalom welcomed Turkey’s offer but said Syria first should stop supporting and harboring militant groups targeting Israel.

“Turkey can also use its influence on the Palestinian Authority … to help them realize that the only way towards progress is to put an end to terrorism and violence,” he said.

Mr. Gul also met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and was to hold talks later with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

Mr. Gul is to meet today with Palestinian leaders, including Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and front-runner in the election this weekend to choose a new president of the Palestinian Authority.

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