BATMAN (Reuters) – Turkey’s state petroleum company TPAO said it was planning to start exploring for oil in Kurdish-run northern Iraq, in a region outside the control of President Saddam Hussein’s government. The Baghdad government has consistently opposed Turkish military involvement in the mountainous Kurdish enclave, but its position on the oil exploration was not immediately clear. The news came amid intense media speculation in both Turkey and Iraq that the United States, a close military ally of Turkey, is gearing up for strikes on Iraq, which runs oilfields near the town of Kirkuk, just south of the Kurdish-held areas. TPAO General Manager Kenan Veziroglu said the exploration work would be carried out in areas administered by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani. We will seek oil in 10 different places in northern Iraq in the Barzani region, Veziroglu said on Tuesday in the southeastern city of Batman, at a ceremony marking the 47th anniversary of the company’s foundation. Company officials were not available to give further details. KDP officials in London and Ankara were also unavailable for comment. Northern Iraq has been outside Baghdad’s direct influence since Kurdish groups there took control after the 1991 Gulf War. NATO member Turkey, in the middle of a deep recession, is keen to resume its once-extensive trade links with Iraq, its neighbor to the southeast. The United Nations sanctions imposed on Baghdad in 1990 curtailed that trade and Ankara says it has lost billions of dollars as a result. One of the few remaining trade links was an illicit cross-border trade in diesel, but Iraq halted supplies to the KDP after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Ankara is pushing to re-establish the trade which provides an important source of income to Turkey’s impoverished southeast region bordering Iraq. TPAO has previously held talks with Iraqi officials on the exploitation and transportation of Iraqi natural gas once US sanctions are lifted. But while Turkey flirts with Iraqi trade, it also hosts US warplanes that have patrolled northern Iraq since after the Gulf War in 1991 and intermittently bomb Iraqi sites. Turkey also maintains its own military presence inside northern Iraq to curb the activities of its own separatist Kurdish rebels who are based there. A middle-ranking US delegation is currently consulting with the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, which is seen as having a potentially important role in any US attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. US Secretary of State Colin Powell last week reassured NATO ally Turkey that the the United States had no immediate plans to extend its war on terrorism to Iraq. Turkish newspapers had carried reports that Powell would seek Turkish support for strikes. Some reported suggestions by US columnists that Turkey could be given rights over northern Iraqi oilfields in return for support. In October, an influential Iraqi paper said Turkish forces had been massing in northern Iraq for such an attack. The US delegation in northern Iraq is led by Ryan Crocker, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The last visit by a US delegation was in February. Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, US conservatives have revived a campaign calling on the Bush administration to pursue a more aggressive policy toward Iraq, possibly including arming the opposition Iraqi National Congress to overthrow Saddam.