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 Turkey-Iraq relations on the decline

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Turkey-Iraq relations on the decline  8.6.2012  
By Enis Erdem Aydin for SES Türkiye

Tension is high between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (L) and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) Photo: AFP
Turkey has articulated a non-sectarian policy towards Iraq, advocating instead for power sharing among all groups.

June 8
, 2012

ISTANBUL, — Relations between Turkey and Iraq have deteriorated sharply, prompting pundits to describe the 'zero problems' foreign policy as turning into one of 'zero relations'. While Turkey's policy towards Iraq has been perceived in some circles as sectarian-driven, this perception belies the deep economic and political relations built up with all parties in Iraq over the past decade.

Turkish foreign policy in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein espoused constructive mediation and engagement with all parties, including the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'as. Turkey enjoyed a high-level of trust and support in the country due to efforts by the Turkish government and companies in the reconstruction of Iraq, especially in the country's north. In 2011, bilateral trade between Turkey and Iraq reached $12 billion.

However, events took a turn in 2010 when Turkey backed the Iraqiyya bloc, composed of Sunnis and secular Shi'as under the leadership of Iyad Allawi.

This support to his rivals irritated Iraqi's Shi'a Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who described Turkey as a "hostile state" in April. Turkey's growing economic and political relationship with the Iraqi Kurds also irked Maliki, who the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has called a "dictator". Turkey's oil deal with the KRG in late May added further fuel to the fire.

Turkey's position vis-à-vis Maliki is not driven by sectarianism, but concern that the over-consolidation of power into his hands could endanger Iraq's fragile structure by pushing other ethnic and religious groups in Iraq out of decision-making processes, leading to chaos or worse, breakup.

More recently, relations took a new twist with the Hashemi saga. The Sunni vice president of Iraq and key member of the Iraqiyya bloc, Tariq al-Hashemi, upon allegations of having had run terrorist death squads, took refuge in Istanbul following a brief stay in Erbil.

An Interpol warrant for Hashemi, and Turkey's reluctance to extradite him on May 19th, led to a protest and burning of the Turkish flag in front of Turkey's Basra consulate, which was met with "condemnation" by Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said Turkey has been placed in a difficult position.

"Ankara's moral support for Hashemi has been used to sectarianise its image as the Ottoman protector of the Sunnis," he told SES Türkiye. "Turkey has tried hard to engage all sects and not to be placed in any corner on the sectarian spectrum," he added.

Indeed Ufuk Ulutaş, a Middle East affairs expert at the SETA Foundation in Ankara, said that as Maliki tries to consolidate control in Iraq, he is punishing Turkey for its previous support of the Iraqiyya list.

"Turkey's relationship with various actors in Iraqi politics, including the Kurds, Shi'a groups and Sunnis, is troublesome from Maliki's perspective, and the Hashemi affair is only a pretext for Maliki's bitter criticism of Turkey," he explained.

As a result, Ulutas said any future rapprochement between Turkey and Iraq is dependent on factions in Iraq agreeing on a collective road map and power sharing. "Iraqi reconciliation therefore would ameliorate bilateral ties," he said.

The crack in relations with Baghdad ironically has surfaced at a time when Turkey has sought to foster good relations with the country's Shi'a-dominated south. After opening a consulate in Basra in 2009, Turkey invested heavily to enhance relations with the south.

In March 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before visiting the capital of the Kurdish region in the north, Erbil, also visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shias, in Najaf. In March of this year Turkish Airlines increased its Istanbul-Basra flights from a single trip to four per week, while Turkish construction companies have expanded their operations in Basra.

However, Turkey is not the only country investing in Iraq's south. Iran has a wide and historical societal base in Iraq based on the Shi'a holy places in the country. It is estimated that every year around 2 million Iranian pilgrims visit these shrines.

Recent years also saw a boost in Iran-Iraq economic relations: trade volume rose from $690m in 2006 to $5 billion in 2012. Iranian companies invested to build power plants in the country, including two plants in Sadr City, the stronghold of the influential Shi'a religious-cum-political leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

On the political level, an indication of Iranian "investment" in Iraq was the appointment of Ali Akbar Salehi, a Karbala-born diplomat as Iranian foreign minister in 2010. Salehi, resting on his origins, became an influential figure in Iraqi politics, especially among the Shi'a circles, including Prime Minister Maliki.

Bahram Amirahmadian, an independent foreign policy researcher in Tehran, said the Hashemi affair is of only minor importance to Turkey-Iraq relations in the long run.

"Iraq needs Turkey because of its economic ties and they have common concerns and interests, such as the Kurdish issue, which is more important than Hashemi's sheltering," he told SES Türkiye.

"If the neighbouring countries leave Iraq to develop and shape in the way its political parties want, it will be of benefit to both Iran and Turkey," Amirahmadian said. "Sooner or later there will be a change in the Iraqi government, and it will be better that Turkey and Iran do not damage their relations," he added.

Published by in cooperation with Southeast European Times.

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