Erdoğan believes the Iraqi government should be as inclusive as possible by representing all colors of Iraqi society irrespective of ethnic and sectarian lines. He prefers a centrally strong Baghdad with its territorial integrity intact so there will be no spillover risks for Turkey stemming from unrest in the war-fatigued Arab nation. He would like to see Maliki project more Iraqi identity for the country rather than be a mere ideological proxy for the overzealous Shiite regime in Iran.
Analysts increasingly converge on the view that Maliki, who has been accused of consolidating power at the expense of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and rival Shiite groups, wants to rule the country uncontested. For that, he uses the army, intelligence, judiciary and, in some cases, the Treasury to silence his critics. Today he pays tribute to Iran, a country that was instrumental in keeping Maliki in power after his State of Law coalition narrowly lost the March 2010 elections to the mostly Sunni-backed al-Iraqiyya alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Only after the mullah regime in Tehran weighed heavily on Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr's bloc, did Maliki garner enough support to form the Cabinet. Using political leverage, Tehran also saved Maliki from impeachment.
Though Turkey supported Maliki's opponent in elections, Ankara nevertheless signaled that it had no problem with Maliki staying in power in a national unity government as part of a power-sharing agreement with Allawi. After nine months of tortuous negotiations, Maliki was finally able to form a government. Ankara thought it had stabilized relations with the Iraqi central government after a reset with Maliki. But optimism faded away quickly when Maliki orchestrated a sinister campaign to discredit senior Sunni politician and Vice President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashemi in late December 2011, immediately after the withdrawal of US troops.
Erdoğan was furious. He felt personally insulted when Maliki ordered his troops to surround Hashemi's residence in the Green Zone on Dec. 15 with heavy-armored carriers and tanks accompanying government forces. He felt betrayed by Maliki, who had earlier pledged to keep the national unity government intact and stop marginalizing and stigmatizing Sunnis in Iraqi politics in exchange for Sunnis' engagement with the political process. More important, Erdoğan felt cheated by Iran, Maliki's main backer, in maneuvering politics in Iraq at the expense of Turkish interests despite promises made by Iranian leadership behind closed doors.
Then the infamous phone call came on Jan. 10 during which Erdogan and Maliki had a very tense conversation in the evening with constant yelling on both sides. Erdoğan got angry when Maliki criticized him for meddling in Iraqi affairs and had to slam the phone down on Maliki, whom he accused of being Yazid, a reference to Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph responsible for killing supporters and relatives of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husain ibn Ali in a battle that took place in what is now Iraq in the year 680. Erdoğan was convinced that Maliki's discriminative policies would lead to further bloodshed among Muslim brothers in Iraq.
The fact that the phone conversation was a complete disaster was not unexpected at all. A day earlier, Erdoğan made it clear that he would not go easy on Maliki. In a joint press briefing held at the Prime Minister's Office with visiting Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on Jan. 9, Erdoğan used the occasion to tell Maliki that Turkey would not accept what he was doing to his coalition partners in the government. He revealed that the phone call request came on that day from Maliki for which he said he would honor the request on Jan. 10.
The next day, before the phone call was made, the Turkish prime minister kept pressing Maliki during his party group meeting in Parliament. He urged Maliki to reconcile with his Sunni coalition partners, and to stop prosecuting and persecuting Hashemi and other Sunni politicians. Otherwise, he warned that Iraq might plunge into sectarian civil war in what he described as an “irreversible chaotic path.” He signaled that he knew outside meddling, an implicit reference to Iran, was the key factor in Maliki's moving against Sunni leaders.
When Maliki leaked the contents of the phone conversation to the Iranians, the news rang alarm bells in Tehran, which was very concerned that Turkey may be sharply turning against Iran at a time when the regime feels increasingly isolated in the world because of its controversial nuclear program and in the Middle East and North Africa because of Tehran's open support to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani was hastily sent to Ankara a day after this notorious phone call. The visit was ostensibly for talks over the resumption of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five powers plus Germany and what Turkey could contribute to the process. But in fact it was mostly on Iraq amid growing fear that Iran is losing a valuable partner in a tough neighborhood.
Larijani and his team arrived in Ankara in the late hours on Jan. 11. The following day Larijani held a series of talks with Turkish officials, including his counterpart, Cemil Çiçek, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The most interesting part of the visit was a closed-door meeting with Erdoğan at 6 p.m. on Jan. 12 that lasted for one hour and 45 minutes. Larijani tried to convince Erdoğan that Iran had no interest in meddling in Iraqi affairs with a sectarian agenda. He even offered mediation between him and Maliki, initiating a phone conversation between the two towards the end of the meeting. The level of talks between Erdoğan and Maliki, brokered by Larijani in that meeting, was even worse than the one held two days earlier.
Frustrated, Larijani left the Turkish capital after a press briefing during which he said some people tried to portray the Hashemi affair as a sectarian conflict for their own propaganda. “I'm Shiite and Erdoğan is Sunni. We are very close friends. Our problem is not the Sunni-Shiite divide,” he remarked in an effort to put a positive spin on his failed trip. The day after Larijani's departure, Erdoğan talked to US President Barack Obama over the phone and complained about Maliki's sectarian policies, warning that the country may be headed towards civil war. He shared Turkish concerns over Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, which may disrupt the fragile coalition in Iraqi politics.
After Larijani's futile attempt to sway Erdoğan on Iraq, Iran changed its tactics. The Iranian leadership started encouraging Maliki to take an openly hostile position against Turkey. Only a day after Larijani left, Maliki decided to fire back publicly against Turkey. Interestingly enough, he used the US-supported Al-Hurra satellite television on Jan. 13 to deliver harsh criticism of Turkey. “Turkey is playing a role that might bring disaster and civil war to the region, and Turkey itself will suffer because it has different sects and ethnicities,” the Shiite prime minister warned.It is a shame that Maliki turned out to be a polarizing figure in Iraqi politics today, acting on the self-interest of seeking absolute power. For that, he does not mind serving his country on a silver platter to Persians while damaging national reconciliation efforts. He does not understand that the Iranian regime is simply using Iraq as a proxy battleground for another conflict that will keep the world and the region's attention away from Tehran while providing the perfect excuse for Iranian mullahs to distract the resentful Iranian public opinion away from domestic woes.