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 Warming Relations Between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan 

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Warming Relations Between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan  2.4.2011
By Mohammed A. Salih

April 2, 2011

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — It was the most glamorous reception that the government of Iraqi Kurdistan had ever given a visiting foreign leader. The main streets of the capital Erbil were adorned with flags, Turkish ones visibly outnumbering those of Kurdistan or Iraq.

Kurdish leaders stood to the side of the red carpet at the newly-built Erbil International Airport to welcome the guest of honor: none other than the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Just three years ago it was inconceivable for even the most optimistic person here to believe that a Turkish prime minister would ever set foot in Erbil, let alone receive such a welcome.

In February 2008, officials in Ankara were threatening Iraqi Kurdish leaders with a large-scale military invasion to punish them for allowing           

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq. Photo:
the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to operate on their soil. Erdogan’s arrival in Erbil at the helm of a large diplomatic and business delegation represented a high-level recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan, and with it the breaking of a long-standing taboo in Turkish foreign policy.

Also during his visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkish Prime Minister accompanied by the president of the Kurdistan region inaugurated the Turkish Consulate in the capital Erbil.

“We consider this to be a very historic moment,” said Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, during the official inauguration of the Erbil airport. “We believe that this visit will build a very solid bridge in bilateral relations between Iraq and Turkey and between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey in particular.”

The point was not missed by observers.

“When we recall how in the past his government was suspicious about the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for all kinds of reasons, his [Erdogan’s] visit certainly looks like a major leap forward,” Cengiz Aktar, a columnist and political science professor at Turkey’s Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, told Rudaw.

Referring to Erdogan’s visit to the Shiite holy city of Najaf prior to his trip to Erbil, Aktar cautioned that it wouldn’t be wise to read it as a policy line vis-à-vis Iraqi Kurdistan separate from an overall Iraq policy. “Turkey won’t go so far as to privilege the north and neglect the rest of Iraq. The visit to Najaf is a clear sign of that,” he said.

Many consider business to be the major engine of the growing ties between Kurdistan Region and Turkey. The new airport in Erbil, built by the Turkish firm Makyol, is one of the many projects carried out by Turkish companies in Iraqi Kurdistan. During his visit Erdogan said that last year Turkey did more than $7 billion worth of business in Iraq, more than half of which took place in the three Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaimani and Dohuk,

“We have historical and cultural bonds with Iraq and with this beautiful [Kurdistan] region,” said the Turkish prime minister during a speech at the airport, adding that Turkish Airlines, the country largest air carrier, will start regular flights to Erbil in mid-April in a bid to bring Turkey and Iraq closer together.

“Now we will be connected by airways. But I don’t want to call it airways; I’d rather call it ‘the way of the citizens,’ and through this way of the citizens we will be connected to each other and connected to the rest of the world,” Erdogan said.

The burgeoning relations come despite longtime Turkish fears over the possibility of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Turkey has,
www.ekurd.netin recent years, adopted a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors as part of efforts to enhance regional security and increase its influence in the region.

As Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan rush to expand their ties, the major challenge to their bilateral relations is the ongoing conflict between the PKK and Turkish state.

The nearly three-decades long fight between the two sides has claimed approximately 40,000 lives, and with the recent termination of a unilateral PKK ceasefire, clashes might break out again in future.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has taken unprecedented steps in granting more rights to its considerable Kurdish population and has embarked on a process of opening up to its neighbors and the Middle East.

While Turkey’s uneasy relationship with its Kurds is often seen as a threat to the future of its ties to Iraqi Kurdistan, experts believe that it is also one area that could further those ties. Iraqi Kurdish leaders were believed to have played a major role in persuading the PKK to announce a ceasefire that lasted for over six months.

Amid the euphoria in Iraqi Kurdistan over Erdogan’s visit, some criticize the reception that was given to him.

“Our relations with Turkey are now normal, and there has been quite a good deal of progress in areas of economy and trade. But the relations are imbalanced and reluctant in the realm of politics,” said Hemn Mirani, an expert on Turkey and professor of political science in Erbil’s Salahaddin University. “The authorities in the Kurdistan Region hang thousands of Turkish flags in Erbil’s streets to welcome Erdogan, while last year Turkey was not ready to even put an Iraqi flag next to Kurdistan Region’s president.”

When Barzani visited Ankara last year, the fact that there was no Iraqi or Kurdish flag behind him during a press conference caused uproar in the Kurdish media; it was interpreted as Turkey’s unwillingness to give Barzani any weight in Iraqi politics.

Another major reason for Turkey’s interest in Iraqi Kurdistan is the region’s natural resources. In the past, the Kurdish government has awarded several contracts to Turkish companies, such as Genel Enerji, to drill and excavate oil. But the biggest prize is the strategic Nabucco pipeline that will transfer natural gas from northern Iraq to Europe through Turkey.

Kurdistan’s minister of natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said in early March that the Kurdistan Region sits atop “at least 45 billion barrels of oil and as much as 100-200 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

During Erdogan’s visit to Erbil, Hawrami met with his Turkish counterpart Taner Yildiz to “discuss energy cooperation,” but no statements were made to the media regarding the details of the meeting.

Hawrami had recently said that Kurdish gas reserves can supply the needs of the projected Nabucco pipeline—meant to transport oil and gas from northern Iraq to Europe via Turkey—for 100 years.

Currently Iraq’s oil is exported to Turkey through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which is controlled by Iraq’s federal government. 

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