29 Jan 2004 22:07:32 GMT
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan 29 (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that establishing an ethnically based political structure in Iraq would be unhealthy for the country and a cause of regional concern for years to come.

While he insisted an ethnically based federation that would allow Iraqi Kurds to govern an autonomous region was a “weak possibility,” Erdogan said questions about Iraq’s future course remained, even after President George W. Bush renewed his commitment to the country’s territorial integrity.

Erdogan, on his first official trip to Washington, promoted his vision of NATO ally Turkey as a model for Middle East democracy and outlined views on Iraq and other topics in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think tank with close ties to the White House.

With the United States planning to hand over poltical power in Iraq to Iraqis on June 30, Ankara has been deeply concerned that Iraqi Kurds might press for an independent state, which could boost independence claims by Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority.

Meeting Erdogan on Wednesday in the Oval Office, Bush repeated his commitment to a “territorially intact” Iraq and sought to allay fears that Iraqi Kurds might seek a breakaway state.

But U.S. officials in the past have also emphasized that a plan calling for the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraq meant that the United States could not dictate decisions.

ANSWERING QUESTIONS

The Kurds, who fought with the United States to topple Saddam Hussein, are one of Iraq’s best-organized ethnic groups after enjoying U.S.-protected autonomy following the Gulf War in 1991. The Kurds have presented a plan to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that grants significant autonomy to the Kurdish region.

Answering questions at AEI on Thursday, Erdogan said: “We do not believe that an ethnically oriented structure is healthy. … In the same way, a structure which is based on religious sects is not correct.”

He said Turkey would play a constructive role in promoting a broad-based government but “if there is an unhealthy structure in Iraq, there will always be a cause for concern.”

Asked if he worried that in the U.S. move toward a political transition, questions about Kurdish and Shi’ite demands for greater autonomy remain unanswered, he replied: “You can say that the waters are murky and that we need to clear the water, clear the air … and leaving the waters as they are, won’t clear it by itself.”

Erdogan’s formal speech seemed intended to provide reassurance of his government’s democratic bone fides as the European Union considers Turkey’s bid for membership. Ankara’s ruling Justice and Development Party has Islamist roots and there have been lingering doubts about the influence of religion on politics.

Erdogan said Turkey was pursuing a “conservative democracy” that incorporates pluralism and tolerance.

“While attaching importance to religion as a social value, we do not think it right to conduct politics through religion, to attempt to transform government ideaologically by using religion,” he said.

“Religion is a sacred and collective value. … It should not be made a subject of political partisanship causing divisiveness,” he said.

“To make religion an instrument of politics and to adopt an exclusionary approach to politics in the name of religion harms not only political pluralism but also religion itself,” he added.