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Ankara Backs Baghdad Bid to Take Kirkuk, But Tensions Remain

A member of Iraqi security forces takes down the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2017.

Turkey has offered assistance to the Iraqi government in its effort to take control of the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The offer was made in a statement by the Turkish foreign ministry: "We once again emphasize the importance we attach to the protection of Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity."

Ankara strongly backs Baghdad in its opposition to an independence referendum passed last month by Iraqi Kurds. Turkey fears similar secessionist demands from its own large restive Kurdish minority.

"Ankara's thinking is that if Kirkuk is taken back from Iraqi Kurds, then their dreams of independence are quashed permanently and there would be one less problem in Turkish foreign policy," said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

Kirkuk has approximately 5 percent of world's oil reserves, and Iraqi Kurds have been exporting around 60,000 barrels a day from the region under its control.

Volunteers and peshmerga forces carry their weapons north of Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2017.
Volunteers and peshmerga forces carry their weapons north of Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2017.

Pro-government Turkish media gloated over reports of the imminent fall of Kirkuk.

"[Kurdish president Masoud] Barzani's childhood dream shattered," wrote the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak. Despite Kirkuk's multi-ethnic population, the identity of many Kurds is linked to their capital. On Monday, Ankara stepped up its pressure on the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, announcing an air embargo in the latest sanction to protest the referendum vote.

Monday's foreign office statement also reiterated Kirkuk's multi-ethnic identity, underlining the importance of the Turkmen population.

"Our relatives, our kinsman, rhetoric re-emerged [for] a while now," observed former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who established Turkey's consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish region. "It proves the fact, the oncoming presidential elections which will be held in 2019 effect the foreign policy of Turkey."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a widely predicted close re-election bid and is courting nationalist voters, many of whom care deeply about Kirkuk and the fate of their Iraqi ethnic kin.

"The nationalists consider Kirkuk and Mosul part of Turkey," said analyst Yesilada. "Kirkuk city and Kirkuk province, there are up to more than a million Turkmens — more than 50 percent are Sunni and they have close ties to Turkey. This is an important issue for Turkey and, in particular, for [Turkey's Nationalist Action Party leader] Mr. [Devlet] Bahceli, who is an implicit partner for Mr. Erdogan's endeavors at home and abroad."

Iraqi security forces advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2017.
Iraqi security forces advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2017.

Last month, Bahceli declared that 5,000 of his party members would go to Kirkuk to protect Turkmen against the city's then-Kurdish rulers. But analysts warn the threat faced by Turkmen is far from removed, with Baghdad forces set to take back control.

"Baghdad's policy so far has been to disenfranchise the minorities, which are Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. And this policy, if the Shia or Iraqi army take over Kirkuk, I am fairly sure they will not treat minorities with grace or favor," Yesilada said.

Baghdad appears sensitive to such concerns.

"The Iraqi government was clever enough to use a Turkmen brigade among the PMU [Iraqi Shia militia force] that claimed Kirkuk province," said former senior Turkish diplomat Selcen. "And not only the PMU is being used, but also the main duties are on the shoulders of the Iraqi army and Iraqi special forces Golden Division [Sunni military forces] elements."

But Selcen says Ankara's offers of military assistance will likely be rejected politically. A planned visit Sunday by Turkish Prime Minster Binali Yildirim was canceled, as was a high-level Turkish minister delegation Monday because of the Iraqi military operation in Kirkuk.

Analysts point out that while Ankara and Baghdad have found common ground on thwarting Iraqi Kurdish independence aspirations, strategic differences remain that potentially could come to the fore over the fate of Iraq's ethnic Turks.