By Megan McCloskey
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
January 29, 2004

President Bush told the prime minister of Turkey yesterday that the United States supported a unified Iraq, addressing Turkish fears that the Kurds would be granted an independent state.

“I assured him that the United States’ ambition is for a peaceful country, a democratic Iraq that is territorially intact,” Mr. Bush told reporters after a White House meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey has voiced opposition to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy than they now enjoy in northern Iraq.

In New York on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan told the Council on Foreign Relations that an Iraqi federation divided along ethnic lines would not be welcomed by Turkey.

The Kurds have experienced a high degree of autonomy since shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when British and U.S. jets began enforcing a no-fly zone.

Mr. Erdogan said he favors an Iraqi federation that is formed around geography not ethnicity. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council recently approved a proposal that would allow the Kurds to at least maintain their present level of autonomy.

Mr. Bush’s comments yesterday sent the strongest signal yet that the United States would not support Kurdish ambitions for a nation of their own.

After the meeting at the Oval Office, Mr. Erdogan said, “We share the same views regarding our strategic partnership in restructuring Iraq.”

Kani Xulam, a Turkish Kurd and director of the American Kurdish Information Network in Washington, said, “Turkey has no business meddling in affairs going on in Iraq.”

From the mid-1980s until 1999, Turkey was entrenched against its own Kurdish insurgents fighting for independence.

“Turkish leadership gets hives when they talk about Kurdish rights,” said Mr. Xulam.

Relations between Turkey and the United States have been tense since the Turkish parliament voted not to grant U.S. troops access to northern Iraq by way of Turkey.

Mr. Bush referred to Turkey yesterday as a “friend and important ally.”

Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim member of NATO, and its location as both a figurative bridge between the Western and Arab worlds and a literal bridge for the American military’s presence the Middle East makes it strategically important to the Western alliance.

In addition to Iraq, the two leaders discussed the war on terrorism, and Mr. Bush praised Turkey’s efforts.

“I appreciate the prime minister’s steadfast determination to fight terror,” the president said.

The two leaders also discussed U.N. mediated efforts to reunify Cyprus, which is divided between a Turkish north and a Greek south, which is recognized internationally and has been invited to join the European Union.

The reunification of Cyprus is considered crucial for Turkey’s own bid to join the European Union.

Mr. Bush will be making a visit to Turkey later this year.