Turkey has lashed out at the Iraqi government for criticizing Ankara for interference in Iraqi affairs after foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a surprise visit to an oil-rich Iraqi city claimed by both the central government and the country's autonomous Kurdistan region without consulting the Iraqi authorities first.
Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq’s Ambassador in Ankara to protest Baghdad’s subsequent statements after Davutoğlu’s visit to the contested city. Sources said the statements Iraq made after Turkish foreign minister’s Kirkuk visit are “unacceptable.”
Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu told the Iraqi envoy that Turkey is taking every step in an open way and that it has no hidden agenda. Sinirlioğlu warned Iraqi authorities to be careful while making statements.
Turkey’s protest came after Iraq delivered a formal diplomatic note to Turkey's envoy in Baghdad on Friday.
The episode, the latest in a series of diplomatic spats and tit-for-tat summonings of envoys between the neighboring countries, is likely to worsen already strained relations.
A junior minister at Iraq's foreign ministry had handed Turkey's charge d'affaires a protest letter on Friday, a strongly-worded statement from the foreign ministry said.
"The note also included a demand by the Iraqi government (for an) urgent explanation from the Turkish government," it added.
Earlier on Friday, Hüseyin Çelik, a deputy chairman and spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), slammed the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for criticizing Davutoğlu's “peaceful” visit to Kirkuk while condoning the US invasion of Iraq.
“The mentality that Maliki represents, the one that does not feel bothered about years of US invasion and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left widowed and orphaned [by the US-led war], is somehow disturbed by the peaceful and good-intentioned visit by Mr. Davutoğlu to Kirkuk,” Çelik wrote on his Twitter account.
In televised remarks on Friday, another senior AK Party official, Ömer Çelik, claimed that the Turkish delegation did not need any additional permission to go from Arbil to another city in Iraq. “Northern Iraq is Iraqi territory, you are required to obtain a visa to get there. But you don't need to get a visa in order to go from one city to another once you arrive in Iraq,” Çelik, who is in charge of foreign relations for the AK Party, told NTV. “If Mr. Maliki happens to visit Ankara, he should know that he would be free to go to any other place in Turkey,” he added.
Asked to comment on a reported statement by an Iraqi lawmaker that Davutoğlu could even be arrested for his impromptu visit, Çelik said no one can even contemplate arresting any official of the Turkish state.
Davutoğlu surprised the media and angered the Iraqi government by paying a unannounced visit to Kirkuk on Thursday, where he met with and was warmly greeted by representatives of the Turkmen community, who share close ethnic ties with Turks.
The control of Kirkuk, a city of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, has long been a matter of contention between the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurds, who hope to annex the city into their autonomous region in the north. The city is currently under the control of the Iraqi government. Turkey, too, has long opposed Kurdish rule of Kirkuk, out of concerns that this would encourage separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish population.
Davutoğlu headed to Kirkuk after talks in Arbil with Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region, on Turkish concerns about Syrian Kurds. In a statement posted on its website, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said the visit was "not appropriate" and an "interference in the internal affairs of Iraq” and warned that Turkey would "bear the consequences," which would negatively affect relations between the two neighbors.
The statement said that the Iraqi government was not informed of nor did it approve the Turkish foreign minister's trip. “All of that was done without the knowledge or approval of the Foreign Ministry and without going through official and diplomatic channels to organize this visit,” the statement said.
“It is not in the interest of Turkey or any other party to underestimate national sovereignty or violate the rules of international relations and not comply with the most basic regulations in relations between states and officials,” the Iraqi Foreign Ministry added.
In a speech at the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Kirkuk, Davutoğlu admitted that the visit was planned at the last minute, following consultations he had on Wednesday with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “We made a sudden decision, let our friends know and came here on a beautiful morning,” he said.
He said it was “one of the happiest days of my life” being the day he finally was able to visit Kirkuk. “A foreign minister of the Republic of Turkey is finally visiting Kirkuk for the first time in 75 years. We are having a historic day,” he said.
In a speech later on Thursday, during a fast-breaking (iftar) dinner in Arbil that was attended by Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani, Davutoğlu promoted Turkmen-Kurdish unity, saying the Turkmens and the Kurds have lived for centuries, and will continue to live, as a family in Iraq. “We will not allow any discord to be sown between the Turkmens and Kurds,” he said.
The Kirkuk spat brought already strained ties between Turkey and Iraq to a new low. Turkey has been hosting Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, who faces charges of terrorism in his own country. Also to the chagrin of the Iraqi government, Turkey has recently started importing crude oil from northern Iraq under a deal with the Iraqi Kurdish administration. Turkey separately imports oil from Iraq through a twin pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean oil terminal of Ceyhan.
The Maliki government has slammed Turkey for pursuing “hostile” policies in the region and interfering in Iraqi affairs, while Ankara says Maliki's Shiite-led government is trying to monopolize power by suppressing Sunni Arabs and other groups.
Iyad Allawi, leader of the cross-sectarian Iraqiyya coalition, which unsuccessfully contested Maliki's political bloc in the 2010 elections, had talks with Prime Minister Erdoğan and Davutoğlu in Ankara on Thursday and Friday. No statement was made after the meetings.