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US Rebukes Iraqi Kurd Leader for Threat to Turkey

09 April 2007

The U.S. State Department has criticized Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani for implicitly threatening to fuel Kurdish unrest in Turkey. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue by telephone with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The United States is trying to soothe tensions between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds following what the State Department says were "unhelpful" remarks on Turkey by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

In a weekend television interview, Barzani - the president of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region - threatened interference in major Turkish cities if Ankara interfered in the status of Kirkuk, the oil-rich Iraqi city the Kurds want as the regional capital.

The comments drew a Turkish protest to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and a warning from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Barzani had exceeded his limits and would be, as Mr. Erdogan put it, crushed by his words.

The Bush administration, which has long sought to contain tensions between the parties, weighed in on the side of the Turkish government, with State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack chastising Barzani.

"We think that those kinds of statements are really unhelpful and certainly do not further the goal of greater Turkish-Iraqi cooperation on issues of common concern, including fighting the PKK in its making cross-border raids into Turkey, killing innocent Turkish civilians," he said. "We've worked hard on that issue, trying to bring together the Iraqis as well as the Turkish government to find a way to deal with that important issue."

Tensions between the sides have been running high, with charges by Turkey that the Iraqi Kurds tolerate or even support attacks into Turkey by PKK guerillas, who have found refuge in northern Iraq.

The status of Kirkuk is to be decided in a referendum by the end of this year. Ankara is concerned that control of the city would embolden what it believes are Kurdish ambitions for statehood, and by extension possible claims on Kurdish areas of Turkey.

Spokesman McCormack noted that retired U.S. Air Force General Joseph Ralston, a former NATO commander, has been working with Turkish and Iraqi authorities since last year as a U.S. special envoy to try to curb cross-border attacks by the PKK, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization.

McCormack said Secretary Rice discussed the flare-up spurred by the Barzani remarks in a weekend telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Gul, in which he said she thanked Turkey for efforts to convene regional talks to help stabilize Iraq.

Turkey had offered to play host in Istanbul to a ministerial conference of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, and major world powers to follow-up on an envoy-level meeting held last month in Baghdad.

However, the Iraqi government - which is organizing the conference - has chosen the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh as the venue for the meeting, to be held the first week in May.

McCormack said Secretary Rice plans to attend the neighbors conference and has not ruled out a conversation there on Iraq with Iranian Foreign Minister Monouchehr Mottaki, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran.

Rice will also attend, in Sharm el-Sheikh, a meeting of the International Compact for Iraq, a U.N. organized grouping aimed at bolstering the Iraqi economy.

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