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Iraqi, Turkish Leaders Pledge To Boost Ties

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) meets with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), in Baghdad
BAGHDAD -- The leaders of Iraq and Turkey have pledged to strengthen ties strained by Kurdish PKK rebels who use northern Iraq to launch attacks on Turkish soil.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first Turkish leader to visit Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said both sides wanted to form a "security area that would eliminate terrorist threats between the two countries."

"With regards to the terrorism of the PKK, we received support from the Iraqi government ... and the regional Kurdistan government in northern Iraq," Erdogan said at a news conference in remarks translated from Turkish into Arabic.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which wants to establish an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey, uses parts of northern Iraq as a base to stage attacks inside neighboring Turkey.

Strategic Council

The two leaders signed an agreement to form a council for "strategic cooperation," although it was not immediately clear if any joint measures had been agreed to tackle the PKK.

Erdogan's visit is another sign the region is starting to re-engage with Iraq, where violence is at a four-year low.

"This is a historic visit ... The time is right for Turkey and Iraq to have developed relations," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said at the news conference with Erdogan.

Erdogan, who urged regional countries to support the Iraqi government, was given a red-carpet welcome at Baghdad's airport, before heading to the heavily protected Green Zone government compound for talks with Maliki and other Iraqi officials.

Turkey's military launched a big ground offensive against the PKK inside northern Iraq in February, prompting concern in Washington about regional instability.

Turkey's operations in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdistan region often draw protests from Baghdad. Ankara for its part has been highly critical of Baghdad's failure to deal with the several thousands of guerrillas holed up in the north.

Iraqi officials say the government has taken some measures, while noting it has major security challenges elsewhere.

Ankara blames the PKK for 40,000 deaths since 1984 when the group took up arms. Like the United States and the European Union, Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization.

Last September, Turkish and Iraqi officials signed an antiterrorism deal in Ankara to tackle the PKK, although the two sides failed to agree on any border security cooperation.

Key Trading Partner

Erdogan's visit also focused on economic links.

Maliki said he hoped Turkish firms would play a major role in rebuilding Iraq after decades of war and sanctions.

"Our success in challenging terror and outlaws has allowed us to move to the reconstruction and investment phase," he said.

Turkey is already one of Iraq's most important trading partners. Turkish firms and products dominate northern Iraq's economy, and Turkish state energy firm TPAO is in oil exploration talks.

Exports of oil from Iraq's northern Kirkuk fields flow through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. There are also plans for a natural gas link.

Turkey's trade minister has said bilateral trade between the two countries was targeted to reach $20 billion within two years, compared with more than $3.5 billion in 2007 and $940 million in 2003. Contracts won by Turkish construction firms in Iraq in 2007 topped $4 billion.

Turkey views Kurdish northern Iraq with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, it fears the emergence of a wealthy Kurdish independent state that could fuel separatist insurgency in its own Kurdish southeast. Turkey also fears Iraq's Kurds will wrest control of the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk and turn it into the capital of a new state.

But a blossoming of trade with the region could help revive Turkey's southeastern economy and alleviate the poverty that has fed rebellion there for over 20 years.