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TEHRAN - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday held talks in Tehran with Iranian leaders on bolstering bilateral relations and stabilising the situation their violence-ridden neighbour Iraq.

Erdogan vowed to ratchet up bilateral trade in talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vice President Parviz Davoudi during the one-day visit, and discussed Iraq during later talks with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"The main aim of this trip is to study the rapid international development, especially the sensitive situation in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and the responsibility that both nations feel in finding a solution," state television quoted Erdogan as saying.

But he also said that Iran and Turkey were soon looking to increase trade to some 10 billion dollars per year, a huge rise on the figure of 1.2 billion dollars from 2002 and the current six billion dollars.

"Iranian and Turkish officials want to extend and boost ties," said Ahmadinejad. "Tehran and Ankara can expand bilateral trade and even jointly invest in other parts of the world together."

The violence in Iraq, with whom both Turkey and Iran have borders, cast a long shadow over the talks. Both countries have expressed alarm at the mounting intercommunal bloodshed in their neighbour.

Khamenei told Erdogan that US forces must make a quick exit from Iraq, predicting that the longer they stayed in the violence-torn country the deeper they would sink in the "Iraqi quagmire".

"If the current US President (George W. Bush) does not pull out its troops from Iraq the next US president will be forced to do so," he said.

"Just as in the Vietnam war, the US troops will be pulled out in disgrace," he said.

Also in talks with Erdogan, former president and head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran, Syria and Turkey should step up cooperation to "to preserve the integrity and address the insecurity of Iraq".

The visit of Erdogan, a pious Muslim whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has its roots in a now banned Islamist party, comes just days after he hosted Pope Benedict XVI on a momentous visit to Turkey.

Iran and Turkey share a border, a common interest in stemming the activities of Kurdish militants operating inside their territories, and concerns about the security situation in Iraq.

But Tehran's relations with Ankara have not always been smooth. Turkey is the closest Muslim ally of the Islamic republic's arch-enemy Israel, and also has a key strategic relationship with Iran's "Great Satan" -- the United States.

Economic relations have also been bumpy in recent years.

The Revolutionary Guards stormed and shut down Tehran's new Imam Khomeini International Airport in May 2004 over the presence of Turkish-Austrian consortium Tepe-Akfen-Vie (TAV) as an operator, alleging "Zionist links".

The facility eventually opened without a foreign partner and the spat prompted then president Mohammad Khatami to put off a planned visit to Turkey.

Last year, Turkish telecommunications giant Turkcell was thrown out of a multi-billion dollar project to set up Iran's second mobile phone network after parliament objected to giving a foreign firm a majority stake.

Erdogan, accompanied by Energy Minister Hilmi Guler, meanwhile voiced his nation's readiness to increase its purchases of gas from Iran, hoping that either in this trip or shortly afterwards a new memorandum would be signed.

Amid an ongoing political crisis, Lebanon was also a prominent issue in the talks, with Turkish troops the first Muslim soldiers to join the UN peacekeeping operation in southern Lebanon.

Tehran is seen as an influential player in Lebanon, although it denies charges that its backing for Shiite militant group Hezbollah go anywhere beyond moral support.

Erdogan is expected to hold talks in the next leg of his trip with officials in Lebanon's neighbour Syria, blamed in some quarters for a spate of assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian figures that has dogged Lebanon over the past two years.

12/03/2006 18:40 GMT

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