A plane carrying Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız was denied permission to land in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, a move likely to further exacerbate already heightened tensions between Iraq and Turkey.
The plane, which had taken off from İstanbul, was forced to land in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri in Turkey. Yıldız was due to attend an energy conference in Arbil.
Speaking to reporters in Kayseri, Yıldız said the trip was planned on Monday and that his delegation received the information on Tuesday morning that Iraqi authorities had barred all private planes from flying to the Kurdish-run northern Iraq but went ahead with travel plans hoping that the Iraqi authorities will make an “exception.”
“This morning, we have been told that the northern Iraqi airspace was closed to private planes. We took off believing that we will be exempted from this ban, hoping that our pilot will get the permission on the way,” Yıldız said. He added that the Foreign Ministry was also in touch with the Iraqi authorities in an effort to make sure his plane will be allowed to land in Arbil. “But by the time we reached Kayseri, we were told that the permission is not forthcoming.”
An Iraqi official said the plane was denied permission because it did not obtain the required permissions. "This flight did not obtain the necessary legal approvals, and it was therefore decided to prevent it from landing at the Arbil airport," Nasser Bandar, the head of Iraq's civil aviation authority, was quoted as saying by the French news agency AFP.
The incident is the latest in a series of recent spats between Turkey and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is also set to deepen tensions between the Maliki government and the Kurdish administration, which are at odds over both disputed territories and energy deals it has signed with foreign companies without federal approval.
A Kurdish official said the Iraqi decision to ban private planes from landing in northern Iraq was “groundless and unacceptable.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the private Cihan news agency, said the ban stemmed from disputes between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish administration, calling it an “act of intimidation” aimed at the Kurdish administration.
In addition to political disagreements, Turkish-Iraqi ties have soured significantly in the recent past due to oil agreements which Turkey signed with the Kurdish administration without the consent of the Iraqi government. Turkey independently imports oil from Iraq's Kurdish region 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.
A Kurdish official quoted by AFP said that Yıldız was on his way to Arbil for the completion of an oil and gas development deal. There was no further information.
Meanwhile, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım stated that any plane taking off from Turkey seeks necessary permissions. “In this case Turkey had also requested permission. But the incident, which occurred while trying to land, is something that was entirely unexpected. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the civil aviation agency are working on the issue,” said Yıldırım.
Iraq in July warned Turkey against violating Iraqi airspace and territory, saying its radars had repeatedly detected Turkish warplanes in its airspace.
In August, the Iraqi central government denied a request for a visa from Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who was planning to visit Kirkuk during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
The Iraqi government had earlier announced that it had decided to reconsider ties with Turkey after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a surprise visit on Aug. 1 to Kirkuk, an oil-rich Iraqi city claimed by both the central government and the country's autonomous KRG, without first consulting central Iraqi authorities.
The control of Kirkuk, a city populated by Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, has long been a matter of contention between the Iraqi central government and Iraqi Kurds, who hope to annex the city to their autonomous region in the north. Kirkuk is currently under the control of the Iraqi government.
Relations between Turkey and Iraq have become strained over a number of issues, both political and economic. Most recently, Ankara angered Baghdad by declaring that it would not extradite fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi after he was sentenced to death on charges of running death squads. The two countries are also at odds over the Syrian crisis.
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.