BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's ethnic Kurdish president called on Kurdish separatist rebels to accept peace with Turkey and lay down their arms, saying the Kurdish people faced a historic opportunity to be accepted into Turkish society.
President Jalal Talabani told Reuters he perceived a "new climate" in Turkey toward the rights of its Kurdish minority and that he supported its leaders in their efforts to end the 25-year conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose guerrilla fighters have bases in Iraq's northern mountains.
"The Kurds are trying to convince the PKK to accept the peace proposals of the Turkish government, then to lay down their arms and go back home, to participate in political activities in Turkey," he said in an interview on August 25.
He said Turkey's increasing openness to Kurdish identity was in the interests of peace in the Middle East, Turkish unity, and the Kurdish people, who live in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
"This is a big step forward in Turkey. The Kurds must support it, must welcome it and must do their best to see these policies succeed in the end," he said.
Iraq's Kurdish population has enjoyed de facto independence in its northern enclave since the first Gulf War in 1991, and consolidated its position under Western protection after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
By contrast, Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds out of a population of 72 million have long complained of discrimination.
Under President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, partly as a result of European Union pressure, Turkey has begun restoring some political and cultural rights to its Kurdish minority.
The Turkish military has been fighting the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, since 1984 in a war that has killed 40,000 people on both sides.
Turkey long accused the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in northern Iraq of not doing enough to prevent PKK fighters from launching attacks from KRG territory.
The tone has changed since the KRG, Iraq, Turkey, and U.S. officials signed a recent agreement to combat the PKK. Heavy Turkish investment in Iraqi Kurdistan has also boosted ties.
If Iraqi Kurds were to remove their tacit support for the PKK, the rebels would have a much more difficult time launching attacks against Turkish soldiers.
Gul in March paid the first visit by a Turkish head of state to Iraq in more than three decades and also met KRG regional prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the first time a Turkish leader has met formally with a KRG official. It was a sign of Turkey's growing acceptance of the KRG's autonomy.
Talabani, a former guerrilla fighter who battled Hussein's army, said he believed the PKK was coming around to the idea of accepting the overtures from the Turkish government.
"I think the PKK will agree to this democratic solution and this problem will be solved without the need of using arms or forces," he said, offering no direct evidence for his view. "The PKK can go back home, they can participate in political activities, they can play their role as good civilians."