The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region met Turkish leaders in Ankara on Monday, as Turkey closely watches moves for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan amid the chaos in its conflict-torn neighbour.
Massud Barzani met President Abdullah Gul and then went into talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in what officials said was a show of a support by Ankara for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities in their standoff with the government in Baghdad.
Territorial gainst by the self-proclaimed jihadist Islamic State (IS) -- formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) -- in Iraq have alarmed regional states and sparked calls for Kurdish autonomy to counter the radical Islamist threat.
In an interview this month, Barzani said Iraq's Kurds would hold an independence referendum within months, adding that the time was right for a vote as Iraq was already effectively divided by the IS actions in Iraq.
"This visit that comes at a time that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is pressuring Kurds is a very important message," a Turkish official told AFP.
Maliki, a Shiite, has accused the autonomous Kurdish region of harbouring radical militants, in comments that drew sharp response from Arbil which said the prime minister had become "hysterical" and should quit.
Sunni-majority Turkey has in the past accused the Maliki government of stoking sectarian tensions.
- 'No more tough words' -
Turkey, which has its own sizeable Kurdish minority, has said it is committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq and officially remains opposed to the notion of Kurdish independence.
But in recent years, Ankara has enjoyed burgeoning trade ties with Iraq's Kurdistan region, particularly on oil, while Erdogan has also moved to end the conflict with Kurdish rebels at home and grant Turkish Kurds greater rights.
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Analysts say that Turkey is now far less hostile to the notion of an Iraqi Kurdistan than when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power over a decade ago.
Barzani also remains key to peace talks between Turkey's secret services and Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan who has been serving a life sentence since 1999 on an island prison off Istanbul.
"Nobody should expect us to make tough words (on Kurdish independence) like we did in the past," another Turkish official told AFP.
"We are still against the idea of an independent Kurdistan. There's no change in our position but there is a change in our rhetoric."
- 'A sustainable business' -
Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz also joined talks between Erdogan and the Kurdish delegation including Ashti Hawrami, the minister of natural resources, a ministry official told AFP.
In May, Turkey began exporting oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to international markets, drawing Baghdad's ire.
Media reports claimed the Iraqi Kurdish delegation was in Turkey to collect its share of oil revenues deposited into an escrow account at state-owned Halkbank.
But Yildiz denied the reports, saying revenues from the first tanker sale of oil had not yet been received.
Turkey was criticised by the central government in Baghdad when it started to facilitate the transfer of oil pumped from Iraqi Kurdistan to world markets.
Baghdad, which insists it has the sole right to develop and export the country's natural resources, has lodged an arbitration case against Ankara, accusing the government of being "driven by greed".