Turkey and Iran in an 'Undeclared Struggle over Iraq'

Article Summary
Relations between Turkey and Iraq are getting worse by the day, as relations with Iran become increasingly obfuscated. As Turkey toes the line when it comes to relations with its neighbors, Sami Kohen writes, "In a nutshell, Turkey’s “zero problems” policy seems to have turned into one of “zero relations.”

Up until a year ago, there was talk that Turkish-Iraqi relations were moving towards “strategic cooperation.”  Relations between the leaders of these two countries were close and friendly. Now, dialog has been cut, and relations are tense. The crisis is escalating by the day and both parties are engaged in hostile rhetorical duels. The burning of a Turkish flag by demonstrators in Basra, Iraq in front of the Turkish consulate as well as the threats issued against Turkish companies operating there are clear indications of the prevailing level of tension.

Earlier, the Iraqi government accused the Turkish consulates of Basra and Mosul of maintaining contact with some of the regime’s enemies. Recently the Turkish consul’s car in Mosul was attacked, and in Basra, customs authorities seized a consular vehicle.

How come such a promising relationship deteriorated so quickly? True, Nouri al-Maliki, who became the prime minister after a prolonged political hiatus, was never a favorite of Turkey. The Shiite prime minister’s problems with Sunni politicians began soon after he took office. Maliki tried to suppress those who opposed him with an authoritarian streak. This is demonstrated by the allegations and legal proceedings that he leveled against Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of  supporting terrorists.

Hashimi first escaped to northern Iraq and took refuge with the administration of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Then, he moved to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, finally ending up in Turkey. The Turkish government not only provided him with refuge, but it also gave him diplomatic support. Turkey refused to extradite Hashimi to Iraq despite Maliki's demands that he be extradited through INTERPOL.

At first glance, the tension present between Ankara and Baghdad appears to be linked to domestic political conflicts in Iraq. According to Iraqi expert Bilgay Duman of the Middle East Strategic Research Center in Ankara, there are other explanations for the current situation. One is foreign policy that Turkey has chosen to pursue.

Duman recalls that in the crisis following the Iraqi elections, Turkey openly supported Maliki’s rival,  Ayad Allawi. After Maliki took over, challenged the opposition and disposed of Hashimi, Turkey began to support the Sunni Vice President.  We openly became a party in Iraqi domestic strife.

During the US occupation of Iraq, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government was trying hard to reconcile between various ethnic and sectarian groups, and was in close contact with all leaders, playing the role of mediator and facilitator without taking sides.

But now, as happened in Syria, with the pretext of “Turkey’s principled attitude,” we are confronting Maliki and his domestic and foreign supporters.

There are of course external factors that pushed Ankara to adopt such a position. Iran is increasing its influence over the Iraqi government through its friendly relations with Maliki and other Shiite leaders. Iran was definitely not happy with the close relations Turkey had been building with Iraq. The hundreds of Turkish companies operating in the Shiite-dominated city of Basra was disturbing to Iran. Turkey and Iran are engaged in an undeclared struggle over the fate of Iraq.

Although the US has put an end to its campaign of occupation, it continues to pull strings and influence Iraq by “remote control.” Duman thinks that Washington supports Turkey’s position although it does not desire to openly challenge Maliki.

Ankar has chosen to take sides in the confrontations between the Iraqis. In a nutshell, Turkey’s “zero problems” policy seems to have turned into one of “zero relations.”

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