- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

Tensions between Iraq and Turkey have risen sharply in recent days, contributing to a decision to convene an international conference on Iraq in Egypt rather than in Istanbul, diplomats said yesterday.

The spat began over the weekend when Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, infuriated Ankara with threats to promote disturbances in Kurdish cities in Turkey.

“Turkey is not allowed to interfere in the Kirkuk issue, and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakir’s affairs and other cities in Turkey,” Mr. Barzani saidtold the Al Arabiya television station.

Turkey is nervous about a referendum in December that will decide whether oil-rich, multiethnic Kirkuk should be appended to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Diyarbakir is the largest city in southeastern Turkey, where the population is predominantly Kurdish.

“There are 30 million Kurds in Turkey, and we don’t interfere there. If [the Turks] interfere in Kirkuk over just thousands of Turkmen, then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey,” Mr. Barzani said.

“I hope we don’t reach this point; but if the Turks insist on intervening in the Kirkuk matter, I am ready to take responsibility for our response.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Adbullah Gul called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain, U.S. and Turkish officials said, and Ankara handed a diplomatic protest note to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara that Mr. Barzani had “exceeded the limits” and “will be crushed by his own words.”

“Northern Iraq is making a very serious mistake with these steps,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Turkey does not hide the fact that it closely monitors developments in northern Iraq. Ankara fears that an independent Kurdistan could encourage separatism in southeast Turkey. The government also says Kurdish rebels use the region to plot attacks in Turkey.

“Northern Iraq is the source of the ethnic-based terror we suffer in Turkey,” Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek said at a press conference in Ankara.

Ankara blames the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, for more than 30,000 deaths since the group began an armed campaign in 1984 for an ethnic homeland that would include southeastern Turkey.

Security officials said a Turkish soldier and three PKK guerrillas were killed yesterday in that part of the country. Ten more soldiers and seven rebels were killed over the weekend in operations against the PKK, the officials said.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Mr. Barzani’s comments were “really unhelpful.”

“They certainly do not further the goal of greater Turkish-Iraqi cooperation on issues of common concern, including fighting the PKK,” he said.

The strained relations between the two countries prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reject Turkey’s offer to host a high-level meeting of foreign ministers from Iraq’s neighbors and world powers.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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