Turkey and Iraq yesterday took a giant step forward to boost ties, signing more than 40 agreements ranging from fighting Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism to energy cooperation and sharing water.
The deals, which Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said would have implications for the entire Middle East, were signed at a meeting of the key government ministers of the two countries under the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on a visit to Baghdad together with nine Cabinet ministers and several businessmen, and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, headed the joint meeting of the Turkish and Iraqi ministers.
Erdoğan's visit to Iraq, which took place under heavy security, came just days after Turkey and another southern neighbor, Syria, signed deals to create a similar mechanism of cooperation and formally abolish visa requirements on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, who was one of the nine ministers accompanying Erdoğan on his Baghdad visit, walked across the border with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, in a symbolic move underlining the growing cooperation between their countries after signing the agreement to end the visa requirements and create a Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The prime ministers of the two countries will co-chair a joint cabinet meeting, similar to the one that took place in Baghdad yesterday, in December.
Prime Minister Erdoğan's government has worked intensively to improve cooperation with Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbors. The efforts recently took on momentum, with a growing number of high-level visits and cooperation pacts being signed in a range of areas from culture to security, in what some call a process of regional integration similar to the one in Europe in the post-World War II era that laid the foundations of today's European Union.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at Baghdad International Airport. In addition to Maliki, Erdoğan also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi officials during his visit.
The agreements with Iraq and Syria mark the enormous progress the two countries have achieved in the past few years in their ties, once characterized by mistrust and security disagreements. Turkey and Syria came to the brink of armed confrontation when the leader of the PKK took refuge in Syria in the late 1990s. Relations between Ankara and Baghdad have been strained until recently by the presence of PKK terrorists, who use northern Iraq as a base to launch attacks on southeast Turkey.
But trade and diplomatic ties have bloomed since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein and as regional heavyweight Turkey sought to expand its influence in the Middle East under Erdoğan's government.
The 48 deals signed yesterday included one on security cooperation that would further improve the two countries' joint efforts to eliminate the PKK in northern Iraq.
“We will tell Iraqi authorities that we are expecting strong and concrete cooperation from Iraq at a time when we are implementing effective measures in the fight against terrorism,” Erdoğan said before departing for Baghdad. “The Iraqi central government has already put forward its efforts,” he added.
“Our meetings in Iraq are important because we are discussing a security cooperation agreement,” Interior Minister Beşir Atalay told reporters before flying from Egypt, where he attended a meeting of interior ministers of countries neighboring Iraq, to Baghdad to join Erdoğan there. “Regarding the terrorist threat against Turkey from northern Iraq, cooperation with Syria and Iraq is very important to us,” Atalay added.
Erdoğan's visit follows a decision in the Turkish Parliament to extend a mandate by one year to launch cross-border operations in northern Iraq against the PKK. Iraqi Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashemi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi, both of whom met with Erdoğan yesterday separately, raised no objection to Parliament's decision, telling Erdoğan that they understand how important it is to combat terror, sources close to the meetings said.
They also expressed satisfaction over the cooperative agreements Turkey signed with Syria.
Consulate in Arbil, new border gates
Relations with Iraqi Kurds were significantly strained due to the PKK presence in northern Iraq, run by a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration since 2003. Ties with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership have also improved in the past one year, with Kurdish officials joining coordinated efforts by the US, Turkey and the Iraqi central government to fight the PKK.
Erdoğan told the vice presidents that Turkey would soon open a consulate in Arbil, the regional capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region, a major step in furthering dialogue with the Kurdish administration.
Other agreements with Iraq are ones on energy cooperation -- including a memorandum of understanding to transport Iraqi natural gas to Europe via Turkey -- and water sharing, as well as in the fields of health, transportation, trade and agriculture. The two countries also agreed to open two new border gates to facilitate trade. The number of border gates is planned to go up to eight in the near future.
The two countries have estimated trade worth more than $5 billion but there is enormous potential for the future as European Union-candidate Turkey aims to position itself as a vital energy and trade corridor with its eastern neighbors, including Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Southern Caucasus.
Under international sanctions imposed on Saddam, trade between Turkey and Iraq choked to a trickle. Turkey's complaint that Baghdad was doing little to crack down on the PKK also poisoned ties. But trade improved dramatically after the 2003 invasion, with Turkish companies playing a leading role in reconstruction.
Turkey and four EU countries signed a transit deal in July for the $7.9-billion-euro EU-backed Nabucco pipeline to carry Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to central Europe, aiming to cut dependency on Russia. Iraq has said it wants to be a supplier.
The two countries also signed deals to extend an agreement over the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık oil pipeline and to ensure the pipeline, which now works at 18 percent capacity utilization rate, works at full capacity in the next 15-20 years. Talks were also under way for the participation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPAO) in Iraqi oil tenders.
Other deals commit the two countries to complete new power lines and boost the capacity of existing ones between the two countries as well as to start studies for the construction of new railways, including one extending from Baghdad to İstanbul.
In September, Turkey agreed to release more water from the Euphrates River to drought-ravaged Iraq, increasing the outflow to between 450 and 500 cubic meters per second until Oct. 20. Only a few months before that, Iraqi lawmakers agreed to block any pact signed with Turkey, Iran or Syria that did not include a clause giving Iraq a fairer share of water resources.
“As a result of our meetings, İstanbul and Baghdad, Ankara and Baghdad, and Turkey and Iraq will be inextricably linked,” Davutoğlu said at a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari. “This is a historic beginning not only for our countries but for the Middle East. As cooperation expands, our region will turn into an area of welfare, stability and security.”