Erdogan to visit Sistani, Iraqi Kurd region

AFP , Tuesday 29 Mar 2011

Turkish PM to meet Grand Ayatollah of Iran on Bahrain, Kurdish insurgency and investment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has expressed fears about the Shiite-Sunni unrest in Bahrain, was due Tuesday in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf for talks with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

"Najaf has completed all preparations to receive Erdogan during his historical visit," Khaled al-Jashaami, a member of Najaf's provincial council, told AFP.

He said that in his talks with Sistani, the spiritual guide of Iraq's Shiites, "we expect Iraqi issues to be discussed, as well as what is happening in neighbouring countries, especially in Bahrain."

Earlier this month Sistani called on the Sunni-led government in Bahrain to stop a violent crackdown on mostly Shiite protesters in the Gulf kingdom.

Sistani, who is about 80, rarely weighs in on political issues.

Turkey also expressed concern that the Bahrain turmoil could fuel repercussions beyond the kingdom's borders.

The unrest "could produce a potential to create an international conflict... and spread Shiite-Sunni tensions across the region," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned told CNN Turk television.

In the interview about a week ago, Davutoglu, who is accompanying Erdogan on the two-day visit to Iraq, also said Turkey was in contact with Saudi Arabia and Iran to ease tensions.

Iraq hopes that Erdogan's visit will boost economic ties between the two neighbours and ease differences over a decades-old Kurdish insurgency.

But the Turkish premier, who visit the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region after Najaf, has warned that there are major hurdles to strengthening ties -- namely to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has rear-bases in Iraq and which Ankara has been fighting.

"The main obstacle to stronger ties is a terror organisation that has bases in the north... I wish that we fight this terrorist organisation together," Erdogan told legislators Iraqi legislators on Monday.

Turkey has repeatedly accused Iraqi Kurds of turning a blind eye to activity within Iraq by the PKK but their leaders have been careful not to anger the larger neighbour.

The PKK, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by much of the international community, took up arms against Ankara in 1984 for self-rule in Turkey's Kurdish-populated southeast, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

Erdogan was accompanied by a large delegation of Turkish businessmen on Monday .

"There are many investment opportunities," Sami al-Araji, the head of Iraq's National Investment Committee, told a meeting of the Turkish businessmen in Baghdad on Monday.

"We are waiting for you to come."

He said that his war-ravaged country needs investment in everything from housing to oil refineries, hospitals to schools, and airports to power plants.

Iraq, still reeling from the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and unleashed a wave of destruction, needs to rebuild or rehabilitate all industries.

Turkey has been a major investor in Iraq. It has invested in the gas sector, is a key conduit for Iraqi oil exports through its port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean, and provides much-needed electricity.

Turkish Airlines is one of a handful of international carriers with scheduled flights to Baghdad.

A senior Turkish official with the business delegation, addressing Monday's meeting, said Turkey hoped that bilateral trade would rise from $7.5 billion last year to $10 billion this year.

"Our goal is to reach a $25 billion target, and this is not impossible," he added.

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