In an attempt to end two years of diplomatic tensions, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks with President Bush today and push for a joint counterterrorism crackdown on a Turkish rebel group now operating from northern Iraq.
Erdogan said in an interview yesterday that Turkey wants to reevaluate the strategic partnership and address "shortcomings," particularly in the war on terrorism. Turkey, the United States' closest Muslim ally, has long been frustrated by the U.S. failure to do more against a group the State Department lists as a terrorist organization. Erdogan made the same appeal to Bush during an international summit a year ago -- with limited results.
As a result of escalating rebel violence in southeastern Turkey, more Turkish troops have been killed in attacks by the rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the past four months than U.S. troops killed in Iraq, Erdogan said. Most Turkish troops have died as a result of remote-controlled explosive devices, the same problem that challenges U.S. troops in Iraq.
"We have to reevaluate what we want to do for the future, and if there are any shortcomings or things we have not done yet, these are the things that we need to overcome," Erdogan told Washington Post editors and reporters. "It is especially very important that we put in a joint effort in our fight against terrorism, because we have some serious difficulties that have arisen as a result of these terrorist organizations. We continue to pay a very serious price for the action they take, so we have to work together."
Relations soured between Washington and Ankara after the Turkish parliament's vote in 2003 blocked U.S. troops from using Turkey to open a northern front for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The issue is still a sore point with the Bush administration, underscored by comments from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this spring. "Given the level of the insurgency today, two years later, clearly if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north through Turkey, more of the Iraqi Saddam Hussein Baathist regime would have been captured or killed," Rumsfeld has said.
Erdogan said Iraq has become the training ground for terrorist groups, partly because of the dramatic political upheaval there. "In all those transition states, there is some sort of price you end up paying, and that is what is happening in Iraq right now," he said.
He emphasized Turkey's support for Ibrahim Jafari, Iraq's new prime minister, noting his new efforts to bring minority Sunni Muslims into the political process. Turkey, which is predominantly Sunni, is also working to persuade Sunnis to cooperate with Iraq's mainly Shiite and Kurdish government.
On the sensitive issue of Kirkuk, the northern oil center claimed by the Kurds but flooded by rival Arabs during Hussein's rule, Erdogan said the city should not be taken over by Kurds -- a key flashpoint between Iraq and Turkey. "Kirkuk belongs to all of Iraq. It would be very wrong to play with demographics, to create some sort of virtual demographic reality," he said.
During Erdogan's visit, Turkey also hopes to win a commitment for more U.S. military support for the 2,000 trucks that carry supplies into Iraq daily, mainly for U.S. troops, he said. So far, about 100 Turkish truck drivers have been killed.
Despite the unprecedented increase in anti-American sentiment in Turkey over the past two years, Erdogan said that the foundation of relations is still strong and that public opinion polls would not influence government policy or the "strategic partnership."
The United States is in turn planning to press Erdogan, who leads the largest Islamic party in Turkey, on its ties to neighboring Syria and Iran, which are on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Although Turkish officials stressed yesterday that Ankara has no sympathy for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Erdogan said ties with such countries as Syria are a key to promoting new political and economic openings. "In order to have this process of democratization take root, we need to pull these countries close to us," Erdogan said. "What's important in the concept of the greater Middle East is for change to take place through local dynamics."