For U.S. and Turkey, different priorities

In Washington Monday, the Turkish prime minister will focus on Kurdish rebels. The US will try to repair relations.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On the surface, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington Monday is about Kurdish separatists across Turkey's border in northern Iraq, and whether the United States can pull Turkey back from launching an incursion against the rebels.

There will be lots of talk about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, long involved in a bloody war with the Turkish government. Both the US and Turkey consider the group a terrorist organization.

But on another level, Mr. Erdogan's meeting at the White House with President Bush is about repairing relations with a crucial ally estranged by the war in Iraq. It will also test whether the US can keep a lid on the war-related flash points roiling the Middle East.

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"It's high noon for the strategic relationship between the US and Turkey," says John Hulsman, a distinguished scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The PKK is the impetus, but the real issue is addressing relations that for the Bush administration have been going awry since the Iraq war."

Another "real issue" is Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, and what the Turkish military especially fears that means for Turkey, others say.

"If this were really only about the PKK, the Iraqi Kurds' offers to provide the Turks [with] information on the PKK would at least be accepted as a starting point," says Elizabeth Prodromou, a political expert on Turkey at Boston University, who is also a consultant to the State Department. "But it's not accepted because the military sees this in the context of Kurdish autonomy."

On Sunday, Kurdish rebels released eight Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq who had been captured two weeks earlier. The move could ease public pressure on Turkey's government to launch a cross-border invasion, but still, Turkey was unlikely to soften demands for tough action against the PKK.

Turkish officials have said that any decision about a cross-border incursion would await Erdogan's Washington visit.

White House officials are hoping that Turkey is in a mood to concentrate on its broad interests in a strong relationship with the US, rather than focusing narrowly or exclusively on the PKK. In addition to addressing efforts to counter the PKK, Erdogan and Mr. Bush will discuss "the promotion of peace and stability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the broader Middle East," as well as US support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the White House says.

But from the Turkish perspective, the PKK is the issue – and the goal of the trip is convincing the US that an offensive against the militants is justified, according to analysts. "Erdogan is coming with many files in his suitcase, but they are all on the PKK," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Erdogan will come with data on PKK attacks on Turkish sites and the military, on the dozens of Turks killed in PKK attacks in just this past month, and on PKK camps and strength in northern Iraq, Mr. Cagaptay says.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Turkish officials this past weekend in Turkey. Although the US has called for Turkish restraint in dealing with the PKK, Secretary Rice assured the officials that the US would help in the fight against the rebels.

"We consider this a common threat, not just to the interests of Turkey, but to the interests of the United States as well," she said Friday at a joint news conference with the Turkish foreign minister. "This is going to take persistence, and it's going to take commitment. This is a very difficult problem."

The US rates low marks from Turkish politicians and the Turkish public over what they see as an American failure to control the territory in next-door Iraq, where PKK militants appear to roam free.

They also believe the US has failed to get tough with the Iraqi Kurds, whom they fault for not going after the militants.

"The Turkish view is that Iraq is a crisis of our making that has made their life more difficult, says Mr. Hulsman.

At an international conference on Iraq Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to work with neighboring countries to address threats such as the PKK.

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