WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) gave Turkey assurances Wednesday that the United States does not support an expansion of autonomy for Kurds in neighboring Iraq.
Bush met in the Oval Office and then over lunch with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search), praising his country as an important ally.
"The United States' ambition is for a peaceful country, a democratic Iraq that is territorially intact," Bush told Erdogan. They sat side by side in wing chairs in front of a roaring fireplace.
The term "territorially intact" refers to the desire of Kurdish Iraqis to expand the autonomy they've had in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War (search). Turkey vigorously opposes self-rule, fearing that Kurdish control of the oil-rich territory could lead to an independent state that could also engulf the Kurdish regions of Turkey. Turkey fought Kurdish rebels for 15 years, until 1999, and sporadic fighting continues.
The Kurds, who established a semiautonomous area in northern Iraq under U.S. and British protection following the 1991 Gulf War, were among the strongest Iraqi supporters of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Erdogan seemed satisfied with Bush's assurances.
"We share the same views regarding our strategic partnership in restructuring Iraq," the prime minister said.
The Bush administration has said that any decision on the Kurdish territory will have to be made by Iraqis after they regain control of the country. The United States is scheduled to turn over control of the country July 1.
Turkey is a strategically important nation, a link between Europe and the Middle East. It borders three countries closely watched by the United States: Iraq, Iran and Syria. It is a secular, democratic state and NATO's only Muslim member. U.S. relations with Turkey were strained after the Turkish parliament refused to allow in U.S. troops for the Iraq war last year.
Bush called Erdogan "a straightforward man" who shares the United States' determination to fight terrorism.
"Both of us understand what it means to have our fellow citizens destroyed by the merciless killing of terrorists," the president said. "Both of us understand that we must stay on the offensive against terrorists and bring them to justice before they hurt innocent people."
The two leaders also discussed efforts to reunify Cyprus, divided for 30 years between the Greek Cypriot-controlled south and Turkish Cypriot-controlled north. Turkey has called for new negotiations based on a plan proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"I state once again that the Turkish side is determined for a solution," Erdogan said. "We will always be a step ahead of our Greek counterparts and we're determined to solve this as soon as possible."
Cyprus is scheduled to join the European Union by May 1. If the island is not reunited by then, the benefits of EU membership will be limited to the Greek Cypriot region, and Turkey's own chances of EU membership could be jeopardized.