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Turkey tries to legitimize incursion in northern Iraq

As Turkey advances inside Iraqi territory to eliminate members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Baghdad has openly rejected the action, though the Kurdistan Regional Government remains curiously silent.

Turkey and Kurdish militants are waging war against each other inside Iraq, which in no uncertain terms has condemned the incursion.

Turkish aircraft bombed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) warehouses in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq on June 16, having entered 18.5 miles into the Iraqi Kurdistan region June 10. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his country had also launched military operations against the PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar region.

A day earlier, the PKK had announced its fighters were ready to confront the Turkish forces, claiming Ankara is seeking to occupy the Kurdistan region. The announcement ushered in the possibility of protracted battles.

Turkey claimed to have killed 26 PKK militants June 12 in airstrikes on northern Iraq. The PKK announced June 14 that five Turkish soldiers had been killed in Erbil province, 217 miles north of Baghdad. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is based in Erbil.

Statements by undisclosed Iraqi sources talked about an understanding between Baghdad and Ankara on Turkey pursuing the PKK inside Iraqi territory. Turkey has touted the reported agreement, but Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, have adamantly denied one exists.

Saad al-Hadithi, spokesman for the prime minister's office, said Turkey's statements about launching military operations in Iraq are politically motivated as Erdogan is trying to impress voters before the June 24 elections.

“Turkey wants the Turkish citizens to vote in favor of the Turkish president in the elections,” Hadithi told Al-Monitor. “The Iraqi government will not allow Turkish forces to invade its territory under any pretext. It warned Turkey not to do so. The entry of Turkish troops into the Iraqi territory is a violation of sovereignty.”

While Baghdad is openly rejecting the Turkish incursion, silence prevails in the KRG.

The KRG — which fought a war against the PKK in the 1990s — doesn't mind Turkey's military action against the Kurdish militant group, said Nawzad Hasan, a political analyst at Al-Sabah Iraqi newspaper and a former professor at Salahuddin University-Erbil.

KRG spokesman Sven Dzi told Al-Monitor, "The KRG had called on the PKK months ago to leave the Kurdistan region territory, to deny Turkey any pretext for its invasion.” 

Though Iraq clearly rejects any military action without its consent, Hasan told Al-Monitor that Baghdad isn't in a position to stop Turkish incursions right now, given the internal turmoil over Iraq's recent elections.

Hakim al-Zamili, head of Iraq's parliamentary committee on security, confirmed Iraqi authorities' weakened state regarding Turkey's threats of a broader invasion and a longer stay within Iraqi borders.

“The Iraqi government and political blocs [are] preoccupied with the results of the recent elections and the ensuing waves of accusations of vote-rigging and electoral fraud,” Zamili told Al-Monitor. “Turkey seized this opportunity to carry out a limited invasion of the Iraqi territory. It sought to promote the [idea] that military operations within Iraq were conducted in agreement with Iraq."

Turkey has also claimed that Iran supports Ankara's incursion into Iraq, but Iranian officials deny any such agreement. Iranian Gen. Abu al-Fadl Shakarji said Tehran approves of battling terrorism, but "will not support any action against terrorist groups that would violate the sovereignty of another country." 

Al-Monitor spoke with Jassim al-Moussawi, a writer, political analyst and head of the Media Monitor Center who presented one more possible factor at work in the incursion. “The KRG could have pushed Ankara to storm its territories by using the PKK forces as a pressure card against Turkey, which strongly opposes the independence of the region,” he said.

Moussawi said, "Relations between the Kurds and Turkey were strained when Erdogan took a position against the [KRG's 2017 independence] referendum and strengthened his ties with Baghdad at the expense of Erbil. The Kurds are now seeking to deplete the Turkish forces and secretly provide safe places for the PKK to weaken Turkey’s position and make it pay for dumping its strategic relations with [then-KRG President] Massoud Barzani.”

Turkey and Iraq must coordinate on security, given the presence of armed organizations classified as terrorist, such as the PKK and Islamic State, in shared border areas. Both countries' cooperation is urgently needed and deterrent measures against terrorism are vital.

However, launching military operations into another country without legitimate approval could throw the region into a cycle of instability. The violation of sovereignty is an incredibly sensitive issue, not only for governments but for citizens in all countries, without exception.

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