- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

ISTANBUL — Messages of good will have been flooding in since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, was hospitalized in Jordan on Sunday. But a get-well wish from Turkey, one of Iraq’s large neighbors, did not come until yesterday.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Mr. Talabani to convey his get-well wishes, an aide to Mr. Erdogan said.

“They had a brief conversation. Mr. Talabani said he believed that Turkey and Iraq can work together to quickly overcome their problems,” the official told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Talabani collapsed Sunday in northern Iraq from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections. He was flown to Jordan for treatment later that day.

The delayed reaction from Turkey is not altogether surprising: It took Ankara nearly 70 years and over 20 Kurdish rebellions to get around to acknowledging the existence of its own Kurds. But with Iraq at a critical juncture, analysts fear its reticence limits its effectiveness as a regional power.

Washington agreed this week to participate in an international conference on Iraq, but Turkey itself remains embroiled in a bitter row about whether or not to talk to Iraq’s federal Kurdish authorities.

For months, Ankara has been pressuring Washington to do something about 5,000 Turkish Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

Tensions between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have been running high over the safe haven Turkish Kurd rebels reportedly have in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani.

The Turkish army last month accused Iraqi Kurds of supporting the rebels and providing them with explosives for attacks in Turkey.

Despite objections from the military, Mr. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul have both said Ankara is open to dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds to mend fences and discuss ways of curbing the rebels, contrary to earlier Turkish threats of a cross-border military operation into the region.

Two weeks ago, under U.S. pressure, Turkey half-heartedly signaled its willingness to begin talking with Iraqi Kurds. It hastily beat a retreat after Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey’s top general, expressed his opposition.

Iraqi Kurds deny Gen. Buyukanit’s assertions they are helping the separatists. While the Iraqi Kurds may be right, analysts say there is little doubt the Iraqis see the Turkish separatists as a potential bargaining chip in their efforts to get their hands on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk at a referendum planned for later this year.

“They won’t do anything until the referendum,” Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar said.

Every day brings reports of new Turkish military exercises on Iraq’s northern border. Turkish nationalists have been calling for the army to push down to Kirkuk to protect the Turkish-speaking Turkmen community there. A Turkish Kurdish politician said last week that Turkey’s Kurds would consider an attack on Kirkuk as an attack on themselves. He was promptly arrested and charged with “inciting enmity.”

Turkish commentators say much of this noise is part of a struggle for domestic control between Turkey’s religious-minded government and secularists led by the military.

“They’re like kids throwing stones at each other,” said veteran analyst Mehmet Ali Birand. Both sides have their eyes on presidential elections expected in May. Mr. Erdogan is considering running. Deeply suspicious of him, the army is determined to stop him.

But the pushing and shoving comes at a price.

“How can Turkey hope to lead regional efforts to find a solution on Iraq” if it recognizes neither Iraq’s president, nor the internationally acknowledged leader of federal Iraqi Kurdistan, Mr. Candar said.

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