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Turkey to Seek U.S. Help in Border Conflict

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush today hosts the prime minister of Turkey at the White House. There's a lot at stake in that meeting between Mr. Bush and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is a major strategic ally and it wants U.S. help to put a stop attacks by a separatist Kurdish group in northern Iraq known as the PKK. The PKK has mounted deadly cross-border raids from northern Iraq, into Turkey, and the Turks have threatened to respond by sending troops after the PKK. So far, Turkey has heeded U.S. calls for restraint.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey says all you have to do is look at a map and review recent history to see how important Turkey is to the U.S. these days. It's next door to Iraq and a key player in the Middle East. And Ambassador Mark Parris, now with the Brookings Institution, says the Bush administration has failed to nurture this relationship.

Mr. MARK PARRIS (Visiting Fellow and Director, Brookings Institution): For strategic partnerships, as we used to call our relationship with Turkey, to work, it's got to be a two-way street. And, I think, what you've seen over the past few years is the Turkish side has had very little to show in terms of what their strategic partner in Washington has done for them.

KELEMEN: The strong Cold War alliance has been in free fall, he says, and the war in Iraq is what pushed it over the edge. The big issue now is what the U.S. will do about the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is based in northern Iraq and has been launching deadly attacks against Turkey. Parris says the U.S. has never done enough to deal with the PKK.

Mr. PARRIS: There's no question it has its hands full and there's no question either this would have been a lot easier to do when we still had the advantages of Shock and Awe working for us in 2003. We did move against terrorist groups in northern Iraq associated with al-Qaida during those years. We didn't move against the PKK and then that's never been adequately explained, certainly not to the Turks.

KELEMEN: In the run-up to today's White House meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Ankara to reassure the Turks that the U.S. is working with Iraqi officials, and more importantly, pressing Iraqi Kurds to deal with the PKK. She again urged Turkey, which is poised to invade northern Iraq, to continue to exercise restraint.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): I affirm that we have a common enemy, that we must find a way to take effective action so that Turkey will not suffer from terrorist attacks. That is destabilizing for Iraq - it is a problem, therefore, of security for the United States and Turkey, and we will work together and to achieve our goals.

KELEMEN: But Turkey's ambassador to Washington Nabi Sensoy says his prime minister is coming here looking for a clear action plan and wants to see much more U.S. pressure on the regional government in northern Iraq to shut down PKK camps and stop all logistical support.

Ambassador NABI SENSOY (Ambassador to Washington, Turkey): The Turkish people have run out of patience. The Turkish government has shown remarkable restraint. And now we have come to the point where words are not important anymore. We need concrete steps.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Sensoy says the Turkish people expect that from an ally like the U.S. especially given, as he put it, Turkey's time-tested relationship with Washington.

Ambassador SENSOY: But still we're friends and allies and we do act as such in a large spectrum, starting from the Balkans all the way to central Asia and Afghanistan, and all that. So it has been a very good relationship and that is why the Turkish people expect more from the United States of America in its fight against terrorism.

KELEMEN: With expectations running high, Mark Parris, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, calls today's meeting a high stakes one for both President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read the profile of the prime minister of Turkey at npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.