Iraq's Maliki offers olive branch to Turkey - paper

ISTANBUL Thu Dec 6, 2012 11:29am GMT

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he wanted to improve strained ties with neighbouring Turkey, but warned Ankara in a newspaper interview not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.

In the latest sign of worsening relations between Iraq and Turkey, the central government in Baghdad on Tuesday denied permission to land for a plane carrying Turkey's energy minister to an energy conference in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Baghdad has been angered by Ankara's moves to forge closer ties with northern Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, which is in a dispute with the federal government over oil and land rights.

Turkey and Iraq have also accused each other of inciting sectarian tensions and have summoned each others' ambassadors in tit-for-tat manoeuvres.

"Despite all the problems, we want good dialogue with Turkey. I am extending an olive branch from here," Maliki told Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper in Baghdad.

"Security, oil, trade, culture. We are ready and want to work with you in every field. But do not interfere in Iraq's politics and domestic affairs," he said.

A major source of tension between Baghdad and Ankara is the presence in Turkey of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death in Baghdad on charges of running death squads.

Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim who fled to Turkey earlier this year when Shi'ite-led Iraqi authorities sought his arrest, has denied the charges against him and accused Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, of conducting a political witch-hunt against Sunni opponents.

Maliki said he also sent a message of brotherhood to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has said Ankara would not hand Hashemi over and that there was no truth in the accusations against him.

At the centre of the dispute is Turkey's courting of Iraqi Kurdistan, with which it shares a border. Ankara is a major investment and trading partner for Iraq but most of its business is with the north.

Kurdistan has also been taking steps towards easing its reliance on Baghdad in the sale of its oil and gas, further irritating the Iraqi government, which says it has the sole right to export oil and gas produced throughout the country.

Maliki insisted that accords which other countries reach in Iraq must be with Baghdad.

"All countries, if they are to make agreements, must do so with the central government in Baghdad. There cannot be an agreement with northern Iraq or Basra. Turkey sees northern Iraq like a republic," he said.

Relations have also been strained by Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq on bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish militant group. Baghdad asked Turkey to stop attacking the PKK on its soil after Ankara stepped up operations following a rise in militant attacks inside Turkey.

The PKK, considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union, has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 for greater self rule in Turkey's southeast.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Tom Pfeiffer)

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