"We don't understand the decision to host Tariq Aziz at this time," said a spokesman for the US State Department last week.
Turkey, an important American ally in the Middle East, and the only Nato member bordering Iraq, is a vital link in US strategy. American and British jets patrolling the no-fly zone over Northern Iraq mount their flights from Turkey's Incirlik airbase. Mr Aziz said he would ask Ankara to withdraw permission for patrols to use the base. Turkish opposition parties have also been calling on the government to put Incirlik back under full Turkish control.
But the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, insisted on Friday that the flights would continue. "It is a decision made by parliament and only the parliament can change it," he said. "The government cannot do anything about it and does not have that intention in any case." Turkey's parliament, which approved the use of the airbase for the patrols until the end of June, has been dissolved ahead of April elections.
Turkey's motive in welcoming Mr Aziz is unclear. The official Iraqi News Agency claims Ankara invited Mr Aziz. The Turkish Foreign Ministry says Iraq initiated the visit. "We have to live in this region," said a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We have suffered a lot since the Gulf War. We want peace and stability on our borders." Turkey's administration has been deeply critical of US foreign policy on Iraq. Bulent Ecevit, who became Prime Minister last month, said recently that American attacks on Iraq "seem to have gone too far". Mr Ecevit ordered the review of Turkish support for Washington's Iraq policy.
Iraq has attacked Turkey for that support, calling it a "hideout of evil". Last month, at Ankara's request, US Patriot missiles were installed at Incirlik to defend against possible Iraqi missile attacks.
Among Mr Ecevit's chief concerns is the possibility that American support for Iraqi opposition groups may lead to the break-up of Iraq, and the formulation of a Kurdish state in the north of the country.
Ankara fears that would provide Turkey's own Kurdish rebels, the Kurdistan Workers" Party (PKK), with a base to launch attacks on Turkey.
"I don't know if the United States wants to form a Kurdish state," Mr Ecevit has said. "But its policy, the steps it has taken, are going in that direction."
Economics may be another factor. Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was a major trading partner for Turkey, and Turkey has suffered economically as a result of UN sanctions on Iraq. Turkey claims the sanctions have cost it $30bn since 1991.
Some trade returned under the UN oil-for-food deal, which allows Iraq to sell $5.2bn of oil every six months to buy essential goods. But Iraq was reported to have diverted most of this trade to Jordan and Syria.
Mr Ecevit insisted that the talks with Mr Aziz would not be secret and details would be made public.
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