Recent tensions emerging between Turkey and the Iraqi central government may have much to do with sectarian tendencies in the foreign policy of the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to analysts.
“If a potential regime change in Syria would be to the benefit of the Sunni population in Syria, it would be wrong to estimate that such a change will only affect Syria. In such a scenario, the political dominance in the Sunni-populated regions of Iraq, including Mosul, Diyala and Saladin, would belong not to Baghdad, but to Damascus. This is a point that deeply worries Iraq and Iran,” said Veysel Ayhan, chairman of the Ankara-based International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), speaking to Sunday’s Zaman.
Iraq is currently in a period of preparation to prevent such an outcome, trying to increase its control in Sunni-dominated regions, analysts estimate. The recent conflict between government forces and Iraqi insurgents undermining the stability in central and northern Iraq is described as an indicator of such a preparation. If this scenario materializes, the influence of the Maliki government is expected to be limited to the Euphrates region.
In a diplomatic snub, the Iraqi central government last week denied permission for a plane carrying Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız to land in Arbil for a conference, adding to the tensions already existing between Turkey and Iraq.
Iraqi officials are worried that insurgents in their country may be obtaining weapons and support from the conflict in neighboring Syria, where Islamists have joined the ranks of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Another Middle East expert, Aziz Barzani, an adviser at the IMPR, confirmed that there are close relations between Sunni Arabs in Iraq and those in Syria, claiming mutual support across the border is very likely to occur. Barzani said that Shiite factions in Iraq, in turn, have begun to support Alawite groups in Syria.
Barzani pointed to kinship relations existing between Sunni Arab populations in Iraq and Syria. “Even the dialects of the Sunni populations of Mosul and Aleppo are quite close,” Barzani said, speaking to Sunday’s Zaman.
Multidimensional rifts in Turkish-Iraqi relations
Barzani also claimed that the Maliki government is trying to distract attention from his administration’s failure in many fields, ranging from health to social services, before the upcoming local elections in April 2013. Maliki is trying to invoke nationalist feelings of the Iraqi population by creating tension with Turkey, Barzani explains.
“Maliki is trying to show himself as defending against neighboring states, especially against Turkey,” said Barzani.
The problems between Turkey and Iraq are multidimensional and not only limited to the issue of Syria. Turkey’s relations with the central Iraqi government have soured significantly in the recent past due to oil agreements it signed with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) without the consent of Baghdad. Turkey separately imports oil from Iraq through a twin pipeline running from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean oil terminal of Ceyhan. Baghdad has warned Turkey that its separate deal in the region could damage its trade relations with the central government.
Many claim that the strained relations between Ankara and Baghdad are a clear reflection of the fault lines between Baghdad and the KRG, which has built strong economic and political relations with Turkey.
Prime Minister Maliki’s government also has repeatedly slammed Turkey for pursuing “hostile” policies in the region and interfering in Iraqi affairs. Just like Yıldız’s recent visit, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to the Turkmen-populated city of Kirkuk in early August has also drawn reaction from Iraqi authorities.
Davutoğlu’s visit to the oil-rich city northern Iraqi city in early August was historic, the first of its kind by a Turkish foreign minister in 75 years. The visit was sharply criticized by the Iraqi central government. Davutoğlu gave a series of speeches in the city, home to a sizeable population of Turkmens, ethnic relatives to Turkey’s ethnic majority.
Baghdad denounced Davutoğlu’s visit as an “interference in the internal affairs of Iraq,” calling it “inappropriate.” The central Iraqi government said Turkey would “bear the consequences” of the negative effects to the relations between the two neighbors.
The Iraqi government has also slammed the KRG for facilitating the visit without seeking the approval of Baghdad.
In late November, both Kurdish troops and the Iraqi army reinforced their positions in and around the contested cities of Kirkuk and Khanaqin. The two parties’ troops have previously come close to confrontation, only to pull back at the last moment.
Tension has been mounting over the formation of a new command center for Iraqi forces to operate in the disputed areas. Kurds say the Dijla Operations Command is a threat to them and an attempt by Maliki to seize control of the oil-rich territories along the internal border that demarcates the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. Maliki says the Dijla Operations Command is necessary to maintain order in one of the most volatile parts of the country.
Commenting on the recent flare-up in Kirkuk, Barzani stated that “Maliki’s policies are a threat to every nation in Iraq, including Kurds, Turkmen and Arab Sunnis.”
Tensions in Iraq rose further when Iraqi troops were killed in mid-November near the Iraqi city of Tikrit in clashes between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces of the KRG. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government sent tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Kirkuk area, which is also claimed by both sides. The killing of the 12 Iraqi troops came after a comparatively minor incident in which two people were killed and 10 were wounded in a clash in Tuz Khormato, another city in a part of the country facing disputes between Kurdish peshmerga forces and government troops.