Diplomats Work to Defuse Turkey-Iraq Tensions Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged Saturday to work with his country's neighbors to fight terrorism. The comments came as major powers met in Istanbul, looking for ways to defuse the tension between Turkey and Iraq over the activity of Kurdish rebels.
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Diplomats Work to Defuse Turkey-Iraq Tensions

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Diplomats Work to Defuse Turkey-Iraq Tensions

Diplomats Work to Defuse Turkey-Iraq Tensions

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, ups and downs on Wall Street.

But first, diplomats from Iraq and its neighboring states have gathered in Istanbul today for a conference aimed at improving stability in Iraq. But the talks have been overshadowed by a crisis and what, until recently, was Iraq's calmest border. Turkey has threatened to invade northern Iraq to crush Kurdish PKK rebels on the other side of it.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Istanbul.

Ivan, thanks for being with us.

IVAN WATSON: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: How do you hold a conference that's aimed at promoting peace and security in Iraq when the host country is threatening to launch a military incursion into Iraq?

WATSON: That's a very big problem, Scott. There were hopes that these talks would focus on things like debt relief for Iraq on the issue of millions of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and Syria, on finding some ways to resolve differences between the U.S. and its rivals - Iran and Syria.

Instead, the keynote speeches were all addressing this border crisis, both the U.N. secretary general and the Iraqi prime minister, calling on the Turks to exercise restraint with Iraq and also saying that they will no longer tolerate the Kurdish PKK rebels launching cross-border attacks against Turkey from Iraqi territory.

SIMON: Secretary of State Rice, of course, is attending the meeting. And Turkey is demanding that the U.S. take action. What sort of action did they suggest? What can she say to either mollify or grant their request?

WATSON: Many observers here see this crisis as a test basically of the old Cold War alliance between the U.S. and Turkey. That relationship has really gone downhill since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Rice is trying to convince the Turks that America is serious about helping fight the PKK, but she's also calling for restraint because the Americans do not want to see northern Iraq destabilized by a Turkish military incursion. They do not want to see the risk of a conflict erupting between the Turks and the Kurds of northern Iraq. So she's having to walk a fine line between the Iraqi Kurds, telling them to distance themselves from the PKK Kurdish rebels and also promising to offer some kind of action to the Turks.

Both the Turks and the Americans are pointing towards a meeting Monday between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington saying that's going to be really crucial to determine the future of the Turkish-American relationship and what exactly the U.S. will do against the PKK in coordination with the Turks.

SIMON: Ivan, is there a split between the Iraqi central government - the president in which, by the way, is Mr. Talabani, certainly a famous Kurdish leader - and the Kurdish regional government there, which has so many autonomous powers and where life has been relatively good and tranquil compared to the rest of Iraq.

WATSON: Well, definitely, there are tensions there. The Iraqi Kurds have pushed for setting up their own oil deals in northern Iraq, and that's been criticized by the Iraqi central government, which — by the Arab ministers and the Iraqi central government.

And some of these Arab officials may be secretly enjoying the fact that the Iraqi Kurds, who have enjoyed relative stability and prosperity, are now facing this crisis. Turkish diplomats that I know have said that often they get Arab delegations coming to their offices asking for the Turks to do something against the Iraqi Kurds to rein them in.

SIMON: Now, Iraq certainly doesn't want another war on their hands. What are they doing to try and defuse the crisis?

WATSON: The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has said his government would take action to shut down the PKK. But it's not really in his hands because it's the administration in Iraqi Kurdistan, which really controls that area. To this day, the Turks refuse to formally recognize Iraqi Kurdistan or its leaders.

So that gives very little incentive for the Iraqi Kurds to actually do something against the PKK. They claim they have no control over the PKK fighters; that they operate in remote mountains.

However, last Monday, Scott, I drove half an hour from an Iraqi Kurdish town called Zakho and was able to easily find PKK fighters in a valley near the Turkish border.

Just in the last couple of days, the Iraqi Kurds have announced they'll tighten security around this kind of places, but they are, so far, refusing to give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders to Turkey, saying they do not want a conflict with their fellow Kurds.

SIMON: NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul.

Thanks very much for being with us.

WATSON: You're welcome, Scott.

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