BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister Thursday asked Turkey to respect its sovereignty and stop cross-border military operations against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq even as his Turkish counterpart emphasized his right to take action against terrorism.
Turkish-Iraqi ties have been warming since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, but raids by Turkish forces pursuing Kurdish rebels who use northern Iraq as a stronghold have been a consistent sore point in relations.
Nouri al-Maliki delivered the message to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Baghdad, the Iraqi government spokesman said.
"Iraq's prime minister reiterated that the government will not allow any forces to cross Iraqi borders," said Ali al-Dabbagh.
In a statement delivered later Tuesday by Erdogan as he stood next to al-Maliki at the end of the visit, the Turkish leader said Turkey respects Iraqi sovereignty but emphasized that the Kurdish rebels are a threat to its security and that it will continue to combat them in the future.
The Kurdish rebel group known as PKK has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast, along the border with Iraq, since 1984. The group uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border raids and is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States.
Discussions over the Kurdish rebels have been complicated by the fact that their strongholds are in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region, an area where the rebels enjoy widespread support and al-Maliki's government holds little control.
Turkey recently intensified its offensive against the PKK while Baghdad has been preoccupied with violence elsewhere in the country. The call to Turkey comes at a time when Iraq has been attempting to secure its own borders as it takes control of the country from departing U.S. troops.
The talks between the two leaders come as Iraq is still struggling to rebuild, more than six years after war began, and is looking toward its neighbors for economic investment.
Erdogan and al-Maliki said they signed a number of economic memorandums, including one opening negotiations to export Iraqi natural gas to Turkey. Iraq already exports oil from the northern city of Kirkuk to Turkey.
The Iraqi prime minister emphasized Iraq's desire to have Turkish companies, many who've been reluctant to enter the unstable Iraqi market, to invest here.
"We believe that the construction process in Iraq needs the presence of the Turkish companies," al-Maliki said.
Also on the agenda between al-Maliki and Erdogan was a water dispute in which Baghdad has accused Ankara of taking too much water from the rivers and tributaries that flow into drought-stricken Iraq. Last month, Turkey agreed to increase water flow to Iraq, and Thursday the two leaders agreed to more talks in the future.
Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers postponed until at least Sunday a parliamentary vote on new election guidelines for the upcoming vote slated for January. U.S. officials have worried if the new guidelines are not approved in time, it could delay the vote and destabilize the country just as the U.S. prepares to withdraw.
U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by August of next year and withdraw entirely from the country by the end of 2011 under a security agreement signed last year.