Turkey Warns Against Breakup of Iraq

ANKARA (Associated Press)–According to news reports–Turkey’s prime minister told an Iraqi leader Wednesday that Iraq’s neighbors would get involved to prevent the country’s breakup along ethnic lines–and that Kurds would be stopped if they pursue ambitions to control oil-rich areas in northern Iraq.

Turkey has become increasingly concerned with Kurdish desires to create a federal Kurdish entity in northern Iraq–fearing such a move would inspire its own Kurdish population to rekindle a 15-year insurgency that ended in 1999. Iran and Syria–which also have Kurdish populations–have similar concerns.

"If Iraq moves toward disintegration–neighbors will get involved. Both Syria and Iran think the same way," Anatolia quoted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying. He did not say what Turkey’s neighbors would consider doing.

Erdogan made the commen’s in a meeting with Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim–a member of the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council who was in Ankara for talks on the future of Iraq. Hakim later told reporters he was "united with Turkey over Iraq’s future and stability."

As the Governing Council hammers out details of a new government for Iraq–Iraqi Kurdish leaders are asking for greater autonomy for the north and a federal Iraq based on two ethnic states.

Although Iraqi Kurdish leaders are not asking for independence–Turkey fears that increased autonomy and states based on ethnic identity will encourage separatism. The United States has said Iraq should not be divided after the US-led coalition authority leaves.

Erdogan had recently met with Syrian President Bashar Assad–and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul visited Iran last week.

On Tuesday night–Barham Saleh–a leader of one of the main Iraqi Kurdish groups in Iraq–pressed for a Kurdish region in a federal Iraq during an interview with private Turkish news channel NTV.

"Everyone wants a federal system in Iraq. There is a Kurdistan there. This is a de facto situation…We are independent from the rest of Iraq," Saleh told NTV.

Saleh angered Turkish officials by saying that Kirkuk–an oil-rich region in northern Iraq–was part of the Kurdish entity.

"Within a federal Iraq–there will be a region called Kurdistan. And Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. It is part of our history and identity," Saleh said.

Erdogan said Kurds were trying to put the oil-rich areas in northern Iraq under their control. Iraqi Kurdish fighters moved into the city after the collapse of Saddam Hussein regime–and Turkey fears that control over its resources would make any independent state more viable.

"This should not be allowed," Erdogan said at the meeting–according to Anatolia. "Kurds playing with fire must be prevented."

The Kurdish region of Iraq stretches from the north almost to the country’s center. It was under US and British protection during Saddam’s rule and remains semiautonomous.

Kurds make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population. The number of Kurds in Iraq has been estimated at 2 million to 5 million people.

Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington later this month and expected to insist that Iraq remain united.

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