President Bush sought Wednesday to reassure Turkey that the United States does not support an expansion of autonomy for Kurds in neighboring Iraq.
“The United States’ ambition is for a peaceful country, a democratic Iraq that is territorially intact,” Bush said after an Oval Office meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
The term “territorially intact” refers to the desire by Kurdish Iraqis to expand the autonomy they’ve had in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region, adamantly opposes self-rule, fearing that Kurdish control of the oil-rich territory could lead to an independent state that could also engulf the Kurdish regions of Turkey in uprisings.
Turkey fought Kurdish rebels for 15 years until 1999.
Erdogan seemed satisfied with what he had heard from Bush, privately and publicly.
“We share the same views regarding our strategic partnership in restructuring Iraq,” the prime minister said.
U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained
On Tuesday, Erdogan had said he planned to raise the issue with Bush. “The territorial integrity of Iraq has to be sustained,” Erdogan said after giving a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He spoke through an interpreter.
The Bush administration has stressed the need to keep Iraq intact. But it also has said that any decision on the Kurdish territory will have to be made by Iraqis after they regain control of the country. The United States is scheduled to turn over control of the country on July 1.
U.S. relations with Turkey were strained after the Turkish parliament refused to allow in U.S. troops for the Iraq war last year.
Turkey is a strategically important nation, a link between Europe and the Middle East. It borders three countries closely watched by the United States: Iraq, Iran and Syria. It is a secular, democratic state and NATO’s only Muslim member.
“The fact that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country that has made common cause with the West strengthens U.S. arguments vis-a-vis the Arab world that you can be Muslim and still be allied with the West,” said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the center.
In addition to assurances on the Kurdish issue, Erdogan is seeking U.S. support for efforts to reunify Cyprus, divided for 30 years between the Greek Cypriot-controlled south and Turkish Cypriot-controlled north. Turkey has called for new negotiations based on a plan proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Cyprus is scheduled to join the European Union by May 1. If the island is not reunited by then, the benefits of EU membership will be limited to the Greek Cypriot region, and Turkey’s own chances of EU membership could be jeopardized.
Turkey wants greater trade
Erdogan also hopes to boost trade opportunities with the United States. Erdogan’s speech Tuesday highlighted economic policies intended to attract foreign investment.
Erdogan described the U.S.-Turkey relationship as “very strong and very deeply rooted.” He noted Turkey is allowing the United States to use an air base in southern Turkey for a massive rotation of troops in Iraq.
Bush and Erdogan may also discuss Turkey’s improved relations with Iran and Syria, both of which share Turkey’s concern about Kurdish autonomy.
Turkey also has good relations with Israel, and Erdogan has offered to mediate peace talks between Syria and Israel. But U.S. officials may be concerned about Turkey becoming too close to Syria and Iran, nations that the United States accuses of supporting terrorism.