ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s Foreign Minister said on Thursday US troops should not quit neighboring Iraq prematurely–but denied media reports suggesting he feared such a withdrawal might help Iran’stir up militancy in the region.
"The Iraqis should be able to administer themselves–but we say the withdrawal of coalition forces before these things can happen would cause a vacuum–a gap," Abdullah Gul told reporters in televised remarks.
Turkey–which hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Tuesday–has been alarmed by the escalating violence between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites and fears all-out civil war could plunge the wider region into turmoil.
Turkish newspapers quoted Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda on Thursday as saying Gul had told him during talks last month in Ankara that the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq would greatly bolster Iran’s influence.
Gul was also quoted as saying Iran might then be able to export its militant brand of Shi’ite Islam to Turkey–which is mainly Sunni Muslim but has a secular political system and is firmly anchored in Western institutions.
Gul said Turkey had no reason to fear such a development.
"Turkey has shown itself as a model country… We have begun European Union membership talks. It is very false to say such a country could be affected by another country’s regime," he said.
"The words attributed to me are not correct," Gul added. Turkey began EU accession talks last October.
Gul reaffirmed Turkey’s support for Iraq’s territorial and political unity.
Ankara fears continued violence in Iraq could encourage Iraqi Kurds to build a separate state in the north of the country which might in turn stoke separatist feelings among Turkey’s own Kurds–destabilizing eastern Turkey.
Turkish security forces have battled Kurdish separatist guerillas since 1984 in southeastern Turkey–though violence is on a much lower scale now than in the 1990s.