Iraq conference looks at tensions on Turkey border

Turkey stepped up pressure on the United States to help curb attacks by Kurdish rebels from northern Iraq as a conference on Saturday of Iraq’s neighbours and major powers sought to lower cross-border tensions.

The so-called ”neighbours’ conference”, hosted by Turkey in Istanbul, was meant to focus on security inside Iraq but instead it is overshadowed by tensions between Turkey and Iraq over PKK attacks launched from the north of the country.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a two-day crisis trip to Nato ally Turkey, has pressed Ankara to show restraint, fearing a big incursion would destabilise the region and complicate the US mission in Iraq.

She has promised more action from the United States but provided scant details on how far Washington was prepared to go except to offer improved intelligence-sharing on the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey is growing increasingly impatient at what it sees as US foot-dragging over the threat from the PKK and has massed up to 100 000 troops on the border for a possible offensive against about 3 000 rebels using neighbouring Iraq as a base.

”This is where the words end and action needs to start,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on Friday after meeting Rice.

No major announcements are expected during Rice’s visit, or at the conference at an Ottoman palace on banks of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, partly because she does not want to upstage a meeting on Monday in Washington between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and US President George Bush.

”For some concrete steps [on the PKK], we are still focused on the meeting between Bush and Erdogan on November 5,” a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Turkish diplomats said a declaration after Saturday’s meeting was likely to include condemnation of all terrorism and applaud bilateral arrangements between Iraq and its neighbours.

‘Common enemy’

Rice, Babacan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari are set to hold talks on the sidelines of the conference to hammer out a strategy to fight what Rice says is a ”common enemy”.

”We are ready to take whatever steps to secure the border but it should come through a joint agreement between us and Turkey and within our capacity,” Iraqi government spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh said.

Dabbagh said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had a ”very positive plan” he would introduce on Saturday regarding the PKK.

But the central government in Baghdad has little control over the semi-autonomous northern Iraq, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which Turkey refuses to talk to.

Iran, which is at loggerheads with Washington over both its nuclear ambitions and over Iraq, has offered to help ease tensions in northern Iraq.

But US officials said Rice was unlikely to hold any substantive discussions with Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on the sidelines of Saturday’s meeting.

She sat diagonally opposite Mottaki at a dinner on Friday held in a tented restaurant by the Bosphorus. Participants said the two diplomats appeared to avoid each other.

More than 20 ministers and other top officials from Iraq’s neighbours and major world powers are gathered at the Istanbul meeting, which follows on from another conference held in May in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Turkey’s government had wanted Saturday’s conference to focus on Iraqi security and to reassert the political and territorial unity of Iraq.

In her meeting late Friday with Maliki, Rice stressed the need for progress on political reconciliation in Iraq, which the United States believes is too slow.

Rice’s spokesperson Sean McCormack said Maliki in turn pledged to ”move forward the legislative process on a number of key issues”.

”Secretary Rice also highlighted the importance of Iraq working with the international community on the issue of refugees, including on the issue of fulfilling Iraq’s pledge of a financial contribution toward international efforts,” said McCormack. – Reuters

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