BAGHDAD — Joined by dozens of businessmen, Turkey's prime minister led trade talks Monday with Iraqi leaders that he said would be a step toward greater regional stability as the Middle East roils from uprisings and unrest.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Sunni leader whose premiership has greatly expanded Turkey's regional influence, was expected to meet with one of Shiite Islam's top spiritual leaders to discuss the crackdown on Shiite protesters in the Gulf nation of Bahrain.
The Turkish premier also appealed for more help from Baghdad in combatting Kurdish rebels who seek greater rights in Turkey and operate from safe havens in the north of Iraq. At the top of his agenda, however, were business investments, including to help Iraq export oil and boost its dwindling electricity and water supplies.
"Increasing cooperation between Turkey and Iraq in all fields is of key importance for the stability and welfare of the whole region," Erdogan told reporters Monday before arriving in Baghdad.
Iraqi leaders have worked to soothe relations with Turkey, which for years has battled the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in one of the world's longest-running conflicts. The PKK is based in northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, which Turkish warplanes have bombed and ground troops have invaded in years past to hunt the fighters.
After his meeting with Erdogan, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said both nations have suffered attacks from "terrorist operations" but are now looking beyond their borders to promote Mideast security.
"Both countries now have more political and security stability, and both will offer as much as we can to solve problems in the region," al-Maliki said.
Reflecting Turkey's rising power and popularity in the Arab world, which cuts across sectarian lines, hard-line Iraqi Shiites welcomed Erdogan's visit, in particular because of his tough positions against Israel.
"We came here to welcome and greet a man of heroic positions — especially his strong positions against Israelis," said Hasan Lazim Jumaa, 42, an intermediate school teacher in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood. He was among about 1,000 supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who lined the road leading from the airport into Baghdad, waving Iraqi and Turkish flags.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called Erdogan's two-day trip an important visit and said the Turkish premier also will meet Tuesday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — Iraqi-based Shiism's highest ranking cleric in the Middle East.
Political observers in Baghdad believe Sistani may ask Erdogan to act as a mediator in Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy has cracked down on Shiite-led protesters demanding greater rights and political freedoms. Turkey, which has served as a mediator in many regional conflicts under Erdogan, is also maintaining contacts with both sides in the fighting between Libyan rebels and Moammar Gadhafi's forces in an attempt to arrange a cease-fire.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly said he fears the unrest in Bahrain could spark sectarian violence around the Middle East — a particularly fearful scenario for Iraq, which is only just recovering from years of deadly Sunni-Shiite battles.
Erdogan's visit was his first since al-Maliki formed a government in December — nine months after parliamentary elections. In a key development Monday, al-Maliki on Monday submitted the names of lawmakers to run the country's defense and interior police ministries.
If parliament confirms Ibrahim Mohammed al-Lami as interior minister and Khalid Mitaab al-Obeidi as the defense chief, Iraq may soon start considering whether to ask U.S. troops to remain beyond a Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline, as some lawmakers want.
Scattered violence continues to plague Iraq on a daily basis.
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