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Sparring Continues Over Turkish Troops in Northern Iraq

  • Dorian Jones

Protesters burn a Turkish flag during a demonstration calling for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq, in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 18, 2015.

Protesters burn a Turkish flag during a demonstration calling for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq, in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 18, 2015.

The diplomatic dispute over Turkey’s deployment of soldiers and tanks to Iraq continues to deepen, with Baghdad accusing Ankara of reneging on an agreement to withdraw its forces and threatening military action.

Ankara has dismissed such warnings despite international pressure, insisting the deployment is to protect forces who are training anti-Islamic State recruits.

In a warning to Ankara, Iraqi officials say that if Baghdad is forced to fight to defend the country’s sovereignty, it will fight.

The threat comes as Baghdad accused Ankara of only partially withdrawing a recently deployed force of soldiers and tanks to protect its training camp in Bashiqa in northern Iraq. But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu dismissed the threat, saying Iraqi forces should focus on Islamic State.

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie-Europe in Brussels, says despite Baghdad’s threat, Ankara is no mood to change its position.

"Prime Minister Davutoglu has stated Turkey will retain a military presence in line with an agreement with the Kurdish regional authorities. The argument that Baghdad has the say over Turkey sending troops, is predicated on the assumption that Baghdad is in control of its territory. As we know, there are quite sizeable parts of Iraqi territory not under the control of Baghdad," Ulgen said.

Ankara is increasingly cooperating with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, which also has strained relations with Baghdad. Iraqi Kurd forces now control much of northern Iraq.

Aydin Selcen, Turkey’s former consul general in the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, says Ankara believes it is Baghdad that will back down.

"First of all it's not in their interest to push a NATO neighbor and an important neighbor out of Bashiqa and, second, they don't have the capacity to do it anyway," Selcen said.

Protesters shout slogans and brandish weapons during a demonstration calling for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq, in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 12, 2015.

Protesters shout slogans and brandish weapons during a demonstration calling for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq, in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 12, 2015.


Baghdad is looking for international pressure. Washington has called on Ankara to withdraw its forces, a stance backed by the Arab League. But analyst Ulgen says a key factor behind Ankara’s tough stance is the belief that Tehran is behind Baghdad’s actions.

"The reaction in Baghdad was fueled by statements of the former prime minister Maliki, who, according to Turkish authorities, acts under the influence of Tehran," Ulgen said.

Ankara and Tehran are backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war, a rivalry that is now extending across the region. Tehran is also cooperating with Moscow, which Ankara too has tense relations with. Former Turkish diplomat Selcen warns that deepening tensions with Baghdad may be one crisis too many for Ankara.

"The circumstances are highly explosive and there are too many now different moving parts for Ankara to juggle," he said.

But observer Ulgen says Turkey’s political leadership is determined that it will not be shut out by its rivals and have a say in defining the future of the region.

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