Turkish-Iraqi ties have been further strained after the burning of a Turkish flag during a protest near the Turkish Consulate General in Basra on Saturday and threats by protesters against Turkish firms operating in the city.
Ankara strongly condemned the incident and urged Iraqi authorities to ensure the safety of Turkish diplomatic representative offices in Iraq.
The recent incident has added a new twist to the long-lasting row between Turkey and Iraq. Ankara and Baghdad have engaged in tit-for-tat accusations over a deteriorating political standoff in Iraq, Turkey's hosting of a fugitive Iraqi official and Iraqi claims of Turkish meddling in Iraqi internal affairs.
A group of more than 200 people staged a protest near the Turkish Consulate General in Basra on Saturday morning. The group chanted anti-Turkey as well as anti-Erdoğan slogans and burned a Turkish flag during the protest.
"We strongly condemn and regret the shameful actions against the Turkish flag during the demonstration which was manipulated by some irresponsible circles," a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
The statement said Turkey has undertaken the necessary diplomatic steps with the Iraqi Embassy in Ankara and has warned the Iraqi authorities in the strongest possible terms.
"Turkey has also reminded Iraq that the safety of diplomatic representatives is the responsibility of the countries which host them," the statement underlined.
According to a report released by the Turkish Vatan daily on Saturday, the protesters distributed several handouts, which included threats against Turkish firms operating in Basra, to people who were watching the protest at the scene as well as to the press.
The group threatened to attack Turkish firms if Tariq al-Hashemi, who faces trial in Iraq on charges of running death squads against his political rivals and who is currently receiving medical treatment in Turkey, is not handed over to Iraqi authorities within 15 days, the same daily noted.
Interpol recently issued a red notice for Hashemi at the request of Iraqi officials. However, Turkey said it will not hand Hashemi over to Iraqi authorities despite Interpol's actions.
The protest came after a recent dispute over alleged acts carried out by Turkish diplomats in Basra. "Some activities conducted by the two Turkish general consuls in Basra and Mosul … are far from their consular duties and obligations stated in the Vienna Convention for Consular Relations of 1963," a statement from Iraqi Foreign Ministry said, without elaborating further, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Baghdad summoned Turkish Ambassador Yunus Demirer last week to complain about the Turkish diplomats in Basra and Mosul. However, what the Turkish diplomats are accused of still remains unknown to the public as Iraqi officials have refused to elaborate on the accusations.
Turkey was enraged with the claims about Turkish diplomats, indicating that they are groundless and politically motivated.
However, an official's remarks to an Iraqi radio station late last week gives clue as to what the basis of the claims could be. An official from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry claimed two Turkish diplomats have forged ties with some groups who are known for their stance against the government in Baghdad, speaking to Radio Free Iraq over the weekend, the Vatan daily noted. After those remarks to the radio station, a group of Iraqi people staged the protest outside the building of Turkish Consulate General in Basra.
There are nearly 1,600 active Turkish firms operating in Basra, said officials from Basra Chamber of Commerce, who also attended to the protest, the same daily noted. “We want Turkish firms out of the country and the borders shut down," they shouted.
Following the incident in front of the building of the Turkish consulate in Basra, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who attended the NATO Summit in Chicago at the weekend, held a phone conversation with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari to condemn the incident.
Aside from the incident, the two ministers exchanged views on the upcoming meeting in Baghdad between the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) countries and Iran to head off confrontation over Iran's ambition to acquire nuclear technology to meet its energy needs.
In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry statement noted that "the Iraqi ambassador [to Turkey] has said that the incidents were unacceptable and they were staged by a group of irresponsible people. The ambassador also said that the Iraqi government was deeply sad about what had happened and conveyed his formal regret over the incident," the statement said.
Turkey will continue to follow closely the necessary measures taken by Iraq to ensure the safety of Turkish diplomatic representation and respect its national symbols, the statement noted.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki have engaged in a war of words several times recently.
The Iraqi prime minister has accused Turkey of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs while Ankara has been increasingly uneasy with Maliki's tightening grip on Iraqi politics through the exclusion of other vital segments of society. Furthermore, Ankara has reiterated its warnings against Maliki not to stoke sectarian discord in the politically volatile country.
Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq visited Turkey last week to assess the recent grim political deadlock over the Iraqi political landscape, the political impasse in Syria and to seek ways to boost cooperation with Ankara against terrorism, namely the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is based in Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
Both Turkey and Iraqi Kurds are critical of how Maliki is amassing power in Baghdad.