News / Middle East

Turkey-Iraq Relations Warming Over Regional Concerns

FILE - Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
FILE - Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Dorian Jones
Over the past year, the leaders of Turkey and Iraq have exchanged hostile barbs, accusing each other of sectarianism. But relations now seem to warming.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a recent joint news briefing in Istanbul with visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari that Turkey always considered Iraqi-Turkish relations as key to stability in the region.

Zebari’s visit to Ankara, and Davutoglu’s announcement that he will be traveling to Baghdad, suggest the two countries are renewing ties after a tense period.

Semih Idiz is a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf and al-Monitor website. He says a shared concern over al-Qaida-linked terrorism is behind the warming relations.

"A common threat is emerging, especially as a result of Syria, with extremism that [is] al-Qaida related. Iraq is certainly suffering from these almost on a daily basis. And the threat has started to loom larger for Turkey, although Ankara supported or turned a blind eye to al-Qaida-related elements initially in the Syrian crisis," said Idiz.

But important obstacles to a rapprochement remain.

Ankara gave safe haven Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni leader who was sentenced to death in Baghdad after a court held him responsible for running death squads that carried out hundreds of attacks on political opponents, security officials and religious pilgrims.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saw Ankara’s decision to give Hashemi safe haven as a direct intervention in his country’s domestic affairs.

Another point of tension is the Turkish government's deepening economic relations with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, or KRG.

Turkey shares a border with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and Ankara is keen to utilize the KRG’s large energy resources to help meet its growing need for oil and gas. Baghdad, which has an ongoing dispute with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership over control of energy resources, has criticized Ankara’s deepening relations with the KRG.

Washington, a close ally of Ankara, has warned the Turkish government against making any energy deal with the Iraqi Kurds that excludes Baghdad.

Sinan Ulgen, a research fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Brussels, says Ankara has heeded the warning.

"There has been now and even very recently a set of ambitious deals between Ankara and the KRG regarding the leverage of these oil and gas resources. And therefore Ankara wants to also get Baghdad on board so that the right environment for investments, for bringing these resources to Western markets, can emerge with the support of Baghdad," said Ulgen.

Murat Bilhan, a former Turkish ambassador and vice chairman of the Turkish think tank TASAM, says that despite Ankara and Baghdad being pressed to improve relations, the recent tensions have resulted in mutual mistrust.

"They should trust us and we should trust them, but it is not yet exactly a fact on the ground ... So it’s a difficult case. Not intractable, but there is a long way to go," said Bilhan.

Diplomatic meetings held in recent weeks are seen as key to helping bridge that trust gap. Observers say a real sign of progress will be a visit by Prime Minister Maliki to Turkey, which could occur as early as next month.

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