BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan pledged on Thursday to boost ties with Iraq and urged the region to do more to help the Baghdad government rebuild after years of war.
Erdogan is the first Turkish leader to visit Iraq in nearly 20 years. His visit came on the same day Kuwait said it planned to name an ambassador to Baghdad soon because security had improved, further easing Iraq’s regional diplomatic isolation.
The Turkish leader said both Baghdad and Ankara wanted to form a “security area that would eliminate terrorist threats between the two countries”.
Relations have often been strained by Kurdish PKK rebels who use northern Iraq to launch attacks into neighboring Turkey.
“With regards to the terrorism of the PKK, we received support from the Iraqi government … and the regional Kurdistan government in northern Iraq,” Erdogan said at a news conference in remarks translated from Turkish into Arabic.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which wants to establish an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey, uses parts of northern Iraq as a base to stage attacks inside Turkey.
Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki established a council for “strategic cooperation”. Ministers for security, energy, trade, investment and water resources would sit on the council and meet three times a year, a joint statement said.
The document setting up the council did not mention the PKK, but called for stronger cooperation on border security.
“The time is right for Turkey and Iraq to have developed relations,” Maliki said at the news conference.
Kuwait’s move to send an ambassador to Iraq and reopen an embassy follows a flurry of diplomatic activity from other Gulf Arab states with violence in Iraq at a four-year low. Jordan’s King Abdullah is also expected to visit Baghdad soon.
No Arab ambassador has been stationed in Iraq since Egypt’s envoy was kidnapped and killed shortly after arriving in 2005.
“We must all help our Iraqi brothers with the reconstruction of Iraq,” Erdogan said.
“I say to our neighboring friends in the region, the future of Iraq is our future. We must increase our support.”
Turkey’s operations in Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region often draw protests from Baghdad. Ankara for its part has been highly critical of Baghdad’s failure to deal with the several thousands of guerrillas holed up in the north.
Iraqi officials say the government has taken some measures, while noting it has major security challenges elsewhere.
Turkey’s military launched a big ground offensive against the PKK inside northern Iraq in February, prompting concern in Washington about regional instability.
Ankara blames the PKK for 40,000 deaths since 1984 when the group took up arms. Like the United States and the European Union, Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization.
Erdogan’s visit also focused on economic links.
Maliki said he hoped Turkish firms would play a major role in rebuilding Iraq after decades of war and sanctions.
“Our success in challenging terror and outlaws has allowed us to move to the reconstruction and investment phase,” he said.
Turkey is already one of Iraq’s most important trading partners. Turkish firms and products dominate northern Iraq’s economy, and Turkish state energy firm TPAO is in oil exploration talks.
Exports of oil from Iraq’s northern Kirkuk fields flow through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. There are also plans for a natural gas link.
Turkey’s trade minister has said bilateral trade between the two countries was targeted to reach $20 billion within two years, compared with more than $3.5 billion in 2007 and $940 million in 2003. Contracts won by Turkish construction firms in Iraq in 2007 topped $4 billion.