Investment talks bring Turkish premier to Baghdad

By Qassim Abdul-zahra

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 28 2011 12:01 p.m. MDT

Supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant pro-Turkey slogans while waiting for the visit of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, March 28, 2011. 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 stability across the Middle East.

Hadi Mizban, Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Joined by dozens of businessmen, Turkey's prime minister led trade talks Monday with Iraqi leaders that officials said would be a step toward greater regional stability as the Middle East roils from uprisings and unrest.

During his two-day visit to Iraq, Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to meet one of Shiite Islam's top spiritual leaders to discuss the crackdown on Shiite protesters in the Gulf nation of Bahrain. Erdogan is a Sunni leader whose premiership has greatly expanded Turkey's regional influence.

He 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.

"From now on, we don't want the terrorist organization to stand as a source of evil between us," Erdogan said in reference to Kurdish rebels, who have been fighting for autonomy within Turkey from bases in northern Iraq for decades.

Erdogan urged Iraq to work in "solidarity" with Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, saying that "would strengthen our regional brotherhood," Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported Erdogan telling Iraqi lawmakers.

At the top of Erdogan's agenda, however, were business investments, from boosting Iraq's energy supplies launching construction in the war-torn nation.

"Iraq is a brotherly nation," Anatolia quoted Erdogan as saying after meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki. "For years we have felt in our hearts the ordeals and pain, and we have been following the developments since then with admiration."

He said investments and trade between Iraq and Turkey reached $7.5 billion in 2010.

Iraqi leaders have worked to soothe relations with Turkey, which for years has battled the PKK. 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.

Al-Maliki said both nations have suffered attacks from "terrorist operations" but are now looking beyond their borders to promote Mideast security.

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. 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 as Erdogan drove by.

Erdogan is to meet Tuesday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — Iraqi-based Shiism's highest ranking cleric in the Middle East. Political observers in Baghdad believe al-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.

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 submitted the names of lawmakers to run the country's defense and interior police ministries.

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