Ankara has strongly rejected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's warning that ethnic and sectarian conflict could engulf Turkey, labeling the statements issued by Maliki's office as delusional.
A statement released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Friday harshly criticized Maliki's remarks on Turkey, in which he responded to the Turkish prime minister's Wednesday remarks on the looming danger of ethnic conflict in Iraq.
The ministry statement said a comparison of the situation in Iraq to the situation in Turkey is a stark departure from reality, slamming Maliki's remarks as delusional.
The statement described Erdoğan's remarks as “rightful concerns” for the sake of Iraqi people and said it strongly rejects what it called “groundless claims” by Maliki against Turkey.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey is concerned about sectarian clashes in war-torn Iraq amidst escalating tensions between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional administration.
“We always had concerns that, God forbid, this [conflict] may turn into a sectarian clash. Now our fears are slowly becoming real. This gives us reason to be concerned,” Erdoğan said during a press conference in Ankara before his departure for Pakistan for an official visit.
Referring to the recent clashes between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Erdoğan accused the central Iraqi government of trying to turn the conflict into a civil war.
“The internal situation of Turkey is concerning and Turkey should be aware of this. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan should focus on internal issues, particularly [Turkey's] specter of sectarian and ethnic conflict, and should seek ways for a solution,” Maliki said on the Prime Ministry's official website in response to Erdoğan.
Maliki added that he suggests that Erdoğan solve the problems of Turkey's minorities and Erdoğan should avoid plunging Turkey into the problems of regional countries.
“Due to the Syrian crisis, there is an ethnic and sectarian division in the region. The conflict in Syria has become a direct problem between the Iraqi government and Turkey, and this situation is leading to a further deterioration of relations,” Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, told Today's Zaman.
Turkey's relations with the central Iraqi government have soured significantly in the recent past due to oil agreements Turkey signed with the Kurdish administration without the consent of the Iraqi government. Turkey independently 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 trade relations between Iraq and Turkey.
“At the same time, this conflict might be a war for oil. Why? Because the central government wants to show its displeasure with the KRG exporting oil without the knowledge of the Iraqi government,” Erdoğan further said.
Maliki also dismissed Erdoğan's warnings and said the Iraqi central authority will not allow an oil war to follow the oil dispute. He said Turkey and Iraq could build good ties if Turkey avoids signing separate oil agreements with the Kurdish administration.
“Maliki is directly warning Turkey that ‘if you don't solve your Kurdish issue, this will create an ethnic problem in the future.' Maliki is particularly scratching the Kurdish and Alevis issues and Turkey is unfortunately currently failing to solve these issues,” said Ayhan.
Tensions in Iraq rose further when 12 Iraqi troops were killed late on Monday in clashes near the Iraqi city of Tikrit between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces of the Kurdish administration -- putting neighboring Turkey in a difficult position on how to best respond. On Wednesday, Kurdish commander Mahmoud Sankawi said he had dispatched fighters to the disputed Khanaqin area. The move came a day after the Iraqi government sent tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Kirkuk area, which is also claimed by both sides.
Meanwhile, Qubad Talabani, a KRG representative to the US, warned the Iraqi government via his Twitter account on Friday that any attacks from the Iraqi government would lead to the disintegration of Iraq. “Dangerous Iraqi troop buildup near disputed territories. Any attack on Kurdistan would in my mind justify Kurdish independence from Iraq,” said Talabani.
“There is a close alliance between Syria, Iran and Iraq in the region. In order to divert attention from their own internal problems, they are pursuing a policy over Turkey,” Osman Bahadır Dinçer, a Middle East researcher at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), told Today's Zaman.
“If Turkey aims to become an influential actor in the region, it should solve its minority issue, particularly the Kurdish issue, and it should prevent countries like Iraq from using this issue as a card against Turkey,” said Dinçer.
Relations between Ankara and Baghdad have also been tense due to what Turkey perceives as the Iraqi Shiite-led government's attempt to monopolize power at the expense of other groups in the country.
Since the last US troops left the country in December, Iraq has been mired in political infighting among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs that constitute its fragile power-sharing central government.
Turkey's strained relations with Maliki crystallized after Turkey supported Ayad Allawi, the Sunni leader of the Iraqi election-winning Iraqiya party bloc, in the 2010 Iraqi elections. Erdoğan and his Iraqi counterpart have traded tit-for-tat criticisms and accusations several times this year. In April Erdoğan accused Maliki of fanning tensions between Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq through “self-centered” behavior. Maliki quickly responded that Turkey was becoming a “hostile state” with a sectarian agenda, saying it was meddling in Iraqi affairs, due to Turkey's support for Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, who was sentenced to death in absentia.