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Iraqi Kurdish Leader Backs Turkey's Reform Steps

ARBIL (Reuters) -- Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani on October 30 praised Turkish steps to address a decades-old Kurdish conflict and called for an end to ethnic violence during a visit to the region by Turkey's foreign minister.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has launched an initiative that is expected to give greater freedom to the 12 million-strong Kurdish minority in Turkey's southeast.

The reforms, which include easing restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, are important for advancing the country's application for membership in the European Union, which wants Ankara to meet the bloc's human rights standards.

Ahmet Davutoglu is the first Turkish foreign minister to travel to Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region.

Ties between Ankara and the government of Iraq's Kurdistan region were marred for years by the presence of Kurdish rebels along the border, but relations have improved under the AK Party government as the two sides have increased cooperation on security and expanded energy and trade deals.

"I want to congratulate the prime minister for the policies and the steps taken for a democratic opening. We support all the steps taken," Barzani told a news conference with Davutoglu.

Acknowledging the very existence of the Kurdistan regional government, which has enjoyed de facto autonomy from Baghdad since 1991, had been taboo among Turkish politicians mindful of reigniting Kurdish hopes of statehood on Turkish soil.

"God willing, the violence will end as soon as possible and Turkish and Kurdish youth will shed no more blood," Barzani said.

Turkey has accused Barzani of failing to stop rebel attacks, even as Iraq's Kurdish leaders have openly called on the separatist PKK to lay down its arms.

Improving ties with Turkey has gained urgency as U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, leaving behind a possible security vacuum.

Davutoglu called for cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Turkey, along with the EU and the United States, considers the PKK a terrorist group.

"Arabs, Kurds, Shi'a, and Sunni -- we will re-build the Middle East altogether. Everybody must take bold steps. But terror is the most serious threat to this vision," he said.

Turkey will open its next consulate in Arbil, after Mosul and Basra, Davutoglu also said.

The two sides are also keen to work together on energy. Turkey has positioned itself as a key transit route for Middle East gas to Europe. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, claimed by both Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, is a particularly sensitive issue.

Turkey worries that if the Iraqi Kurds win the battle over Kirkuk, that would give them enough revenues to form a viable state, stoking separatist aspirations among its own Kurds.

Turkey regularly shells PKK targets in northern Iraq. It blames the PKK for 40,000 deaths since 1984, when the group took up arms to carve out a homeland in southeast Turkey.

Turkey and Iraq are major trading partners, and some 500,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day -- about a quarter of its exports -- are piped through the Turkish port of Ceyhan.