The late Fahri Korutürk was the last Turkish president to pay an official visit to Baghdad, back in 1976. Bilateral relations between Iraq and Turkey entered a new phase after a landmark visit to Ankara by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani more than a year ago, in early March 2008. Before that, Talabani, elected president in 2005, had visited Ankara in September 2004 as then-president of the governing council of Iraq.
Talabani, a Kurd, had long said he was interested in visiting Ankara, but Turkey's former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, had refused to invite him, despite strong economic and trade ties between the two countries, due to Turkish concerns that Iraqi Kurds were supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Last week, Gül and Talabani held bilateral talks in İstanbul on the sidelines of the 5th World Water Forum. Earlier in March, both leaders were in the Iranian capital to attend a summit of the regional Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Thus, with Gül's visit to Baghdad, the two presidents will have met three times in March.
Baghdad is expected to be the only stop during Gül's visit, due to time pressure and security concerns keeping him from traveling to other cities, such as Arbil, Kirkuk or Najaf.
While in Baghdad, Gül will have talks with Iraqi officials in the Green Zone, the heavily guarded diplomatic-governmental area of closed-off streets in the center of the city.
Tonight, Talabani is expected to host a dinner in Gül's honor. The attendance of Massoud Barzani, head of the largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, at the dinner is likely. Ankara hasn't voiced any objections to his participation.
Barzani has long been viewed with suspicion in Turkey for tolerating the PKK presence in northern Iraq, but in a sign of a thaw, the government initiated diplomatic-level dialogue with the Kurdish leader last month.
Talabani has said on various occasions that a conference of Kurdish representatives from Turkey, the Middle East and Europe, which is planned to convene in April or May, will issue a call for the PKK to lay down arms. Also, it is likely the conference will call on Turkey to issue an amnesty for members of the terrorist group.
Gül's visit also comes ahead of a planned international conference which is slated to convene in April or May and be hosted in Arbil with the participation of Kurdish representatives from Turkey, the Middle East and Europe.
The idea of holding such conference was first mentioned by Barzani during a meeting in Arbil with Turkey's special envoy to Iraq, Murat Özçelik, Babacan said in an interview over the weekend.
After being informed by Özçelik of the idea, Ankara told Iraqi Kurds that they would welcome a conference which would bring together different Kurdish political parties and highlight the importance of political efforts on democratic grounds. However, if the conference were to have an ethnic-nationalist tone and become a platform of propaganda for the PKK, then it would be better for it not to be held, Ankara told the Iraqi Kurds then.