ANKARA CONTRA BAGHDAD : Turkish military to stand ground despite Iraq’s move to expel foreign forces

4 October 2012 / SINEM CENGIZ, ANKARA – Zaman – In the latest blow to the already strained ties between Turkey and Iraq, Iraq has made a decision to prohibit the presence of any foreign troops or foreign bases on Iraqi territory, however Turkish officials say they do not expect this decision to affect the presence of the Turkish military in Iraq.Iraq asked Turkey on Tuesday to stop attacking terrorists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sheltered across the border in northern Iraq, as Turkey prepares to extend its internal mandate for the cross-border raids.

The decision by the Iraqi cabinet came on the heels of a motion made by the Turkish government in Parliament to extend a mandate, which is set to expire on Oct. 17, that allows Turkish military strikes against the PKK in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Experts agree that the central government’s power over Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region is limited, adding such a decision will not have any effect on the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq.

“[The Nouri] Maliki government does not have the power to prevent Turkey’s operations both militarily and politically. Moreover, the central government’s security forces have no effect in northern Iraq. This decision will not have any practical effect. It is a step to strain the relations further. Iraq is just bluffing,” Bilgay Duman, an expert on Iraq from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Today’s Zaman.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement on Tuesday that the Iraqi cabinet objects to the Turkish government’s motion to extend cross-border operations against terrorists in northern Iraq, saying they contradict the principle of good neighborly relations.

The government motion for a one-year extension for military authorization to stage cross-border operations was submitted to Parliament in late September.

“It rejects the presence of any foreign bases or troops on Iraqi territory and the incursion of any foreign military forces into Iraqi lands on the pretext of hunting down rebels,” Dabbagh added, complaining of a “violation to Iraqi sovereignty and security”.

Dabbagh said the cabinet had advised parliament to cancel or refuse to renew any pre-existing agreements signed with any foreign state that would permit the presence of foreign forces and military bases on Iraqi land or foreign states to enter Iraqi territory. “I believe that this decision will be approved by parliament because the Iraqi parliament is close to the Maliki side. But, even if it is approved, it will be ineffective in practice,” said Duman. Agreeing with Duman, Atilla Sandıklı, the chairman of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM) told Today’s Zaman that in such a period, it was hard to implement the decision. “Indeed, implementation of such a decision is very hard, but yet Iraq aims to put Turkey in a difficult position in the international arena,” said Sandıklı.

Ankara didn’t issue any official statement regarding the Iraqi government’s move. A senior Turkish official, who spoke to Today’s Zaman on the condition of anonymity, said the move aims to increase tension between the two countries whose relations have been strained as of late. “Turkey is maintaining its presence in Iraq due to obligation. If the Iraqi government could manage to prevent the terrorist infiltration into Turkey then Turkey wouldn’t need to extend its military mandate in Iraq,” said the same official.

Turkey has maintained several military bases in northern Iraq since the 1990s. There are currently four outposts in Bamerni, Batufa, Kanimasi and Dilmentepe with some 2,500 soldiers. The Turkish military also has liaison offices in Suleymaniye and Arbil. The treaty that the Iraqi government wants to cancel is the one that Saddam Hussein signed in 1995 allowing Turkish forces to have a presence in Iraq’s northern regions to pursue the PKK.

Another Turkish official, who spoke to Today’s Zaman on the condition of anonymity, stated that the Turkish forces in Iraq were not deployed for operational purposes, but for logistical support. “Instead of making remarks regarding the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq, the central government should prevent the elements that support the PKK,” said the same official. “If Iraq allows terrorists to shelter in its country, then this would be considered a hostile act against Turkey. In case of a threat, Turkey would have the legal right for self-defense and to take military measures,” said Sandıklı.

Relations between Turkey and Iraq have become strained over a number of issues, both political and economic. Most recently, Ankara angered Baghdad by declaring that it would not extradite fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi after he was sentenced to death on charges of running death squads.

“Turkey has had close relations with Hashemi for many years, but these close relations shouldn’t be the cause of tense relations. This will harm Turkey’s Iraq policy and also its Middle East policy,” said Duman, adding Turkey’s support of Hashemi was perceived by Iraq as Turkey siding with a particular group in Iraq.

On the other side, Sandıklı stated that Turkey’s support of Hashemi was questionable as it seems like Turkey is interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq. Iraq vehemently criticized Turkey for meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.

“Turkey has taken several steps to soften relations. In this respect, the invitation for Maliki to attend the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party’s congress is an important step. Not only Maliki, but the other groups in Iraq were also invited. But the other Shiite groups also refused to attend the congress, which is a very important point to be taken into consideration. The reason for not attending was Hashemi,” said Duman. Although Turkey has strained relations with Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited his Iraqi counterpart to pay a visit to Turkey to attend the congress of Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party last weekend. But the invitation was turned downed by Maliki. Maliki and Erdoğan have publicly traded insults several times this year as relations have soured. Both prime ministers have engaged in tit-for-tat accusations in recent months.

“Obviously, the current tension between two countries is created by Iraq itself. The relations are not only tense due to bilateral relations, but also due to the regional issues. In this respect, the diverse policies in the Syrian crisis and Iran’s influence on Iraqi government are important factors,” said Duman.

The civil war in Syria has taken its toll on Turkish-Iraqi ties as well. Maliki, known to be close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Iran, has taken a more muted stance on Syria. The two countries are also at odds over a recent deal between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish administration allowing the Iraqi Kurds to export oil and gas through Turkey. “As Turkey’s relations become more strained with Iraq’s central government, Turkey improves its relations with northern Iraq. It is believed that improving relations with northern Iraq will help to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey,” said Sandıklı.