Rice Holds Talks in Turkey Gives Assurances over Iraq

ANKARA (AFP)–US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice–who held talks with Turkish leaders in Ankara–was quick to assure wary ally Ankara that its concerns over the future of neighboring Iraq are not being ignored.

Rice–on a whirlwind tour of eight European capitals–Israel–and the West Bank–met with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer–and was also to hold talks with her counterpart Abdullah Gul.

Rice’s visit follows harsh warnings from Ankara that Washington is turning a blind eye to Kurdish moves in northern Iraq aimed at paving the way for future Kurdish independence in the region.

The accusations come at a time when the two NATO allies are already struggling to repair their ties in the wake of a severe diplomatic crisis prior to Iraq’s invasion in March 2003–when Ankara stunned Washington by denying US troops access to Turkish territory to attack Iraq from the north.

"The United States favors a unified Iraq in which the rights of all Iraqis are represented and respected," Rice told NTV television Sunday–with voice-over translation into Turkish.

While shaping their post-war nation–the Iraqis have the responsibility to create a country that will live in peace with its neighbors–she said.

The prospect of major Kurdish political gains in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk following the January 30 elections has irked Ankara–which suspects that the Kurds want the ethnically mixed city to become the capital of an independent Kurdish state.

Such a state–Ankara fears–would fuel moves towards independence among the restive Kurds of adjoining southeast Turkey–sparking regional turmoil.

Rice told NTV that it was up to the Iraqis to decide on the future status of Kirkuk–but stressed that the ethnically volatile city–which is also home to Turkish-speaking Turkmens–should be a place where "all Iraqis will live together without fears."

She also sought to assure Ankara that Washington was "very determined" to ensure that Turkish Kurd rebels holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq are prevented from using the region as a springboard for violence against Turkey.

Ankara has long been frustrated with US reluctance to take military action against the guerrillas–who found refuge in the enclave prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq and who last summer ended a five-year unilateral ceasefire with Turkey.

She said trilateral security meetings between Turkey–Iraq–and the United States should continue and that the parties should also seek to use non-military measures–such as cutting off sources of finance for the rebels.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–to which the rebels belong–is considered a terrorist organization by Washington.

Rice stopped short of pledging military action against the PKK–highlighting the difficult security situation in other parts of Iraq.

Bilateral differences over Iraq are believed to have increased anti-US sentiment in Turkey–a strictly secular Muslim nation which Washington has often praised as a model for co-habitation between democracy and Islam.

However–Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan–who has often led the criticism towards Washington–insisted that Turkish-US ties remained strong.

"Our ties continue with the same maturity and in a positive spirit…at the level of strategic partnership. We have confirmed this between ourselves," he told reporters after talks with Rice late Saturday.

The toughening US policy towards Iran–another troubled neighbor of Turkey–and efforts to revive the Middle East peace process were also expected to be high on Rice’s agenda here.

Rice was to hold a news conference with Gul later on Sunday before flying out to Israel–her next point of call.

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