BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, said on Monday the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish separatist guerrilla group, must lay down its arms or quit Iraq.
Talabani’s remarks were some of the toughest made recently by any Iraqi leader against the PKK, whose guerrillas have used northern Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks in Turkey, straining ties between Baghdad and Ankara.
“Either it lays down its arms or it leaves our territory,” Talabani told a news conference alongside Turkey’s visiting president, Abdullah Gul. He was speaking through an interpreter.
Gul, making the first visit to Iraq by a Turkish head of state in more than three decades, said the time had come “to end all these problems which hinder relations between Turkey and Iraq.”
“A thorough operation must be carried out (against the PKK) and this is the responsibility of all of us,” he said.
Turkey has accused Iraq in the past of not doing enough to crack down on the PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by Washington and the European Union.
Turkey regularly shells PKK targets in Iraq. This month it killed at least four PKK guerrillas, who have been fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey since 1984.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Baghdad last year, a milestone in Iraq’s efforts to end the regional isolation it had suffered since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In a rare sign of growing Turkish acceptance of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region, Gul referred to the “Kurdistan regional administration” — a phrase normally unusable among Turkish politicians mindful of reigniting Kurdish hopes of statehood on Turkish soil.
Turkey has long feared that a Kurdish state in Iraq would bolster calls for Kurdish independence in southeast Turkey.
Asked to clarify his remark, he told reporters travelling with him: “That’s the term they use and it’s in the Iraqi constitution”.
A spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government told Reuters Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani would meet Gul on Tuesday, and that security issues would be high on the agenda.
A PKK leader said Gul’s visit changed nothing.
“For us in the PKK we don’t have any fears from this visit, and we believe it will have no affect on us,” said Haval Roze, a PKK leader.
The Kurdish issue has gained momentum in Turkey as the AK Party government tries to win Kurdish votes in southeast Turkey ahead of March 29 municipal elections.
The government has also launched a series of initiatives aimed at improving the rights of Kurds, who have long complained of discrimination by the state.
Gul was conciliatory towards Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, who he said were organising a security conference in April.
“They (northern Iraq administration) see that winning over Turkey is an advantage and it is the first time I see them doing something ... We are in a new era now,” he said.
In January Turkey, Iraq and the United States agreed to set up a joint command centre in northern Iraq to gather intelligence to fight the PKK. Ankara blames the PKK for 40,000 deaths since 1984, when the group took up arms.
Turkey and Iraq are major trading partners, and some 400,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day — more than a fifth of its exports — are piped through the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Writing by Mohammed Abbas, editing by Tim Pearce