BAGHDAD - Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim arrived in Baghdad Saturday for a two-day visit, according to a report on Iraqi state TV. It’s the first such visit since the two governments quarreled over the presence of unauthorized Turkish troops in northern Iraq, straining relations between the two neighbors fighting the Islamic State group.
The TV didn’t give details on Yildirim’s schedule. On his Twitter account, the Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad, Faruk Kaymakci, said “We hope that his visit will open a new chapter in Turkey-Iraq relations.”
The presence of about 500 Turkish troops in the Bashiqa region, northeast of the IS-held city of Mosul, has stirred tension with Baghdad since late last year. Iraq has demanded their withdrawal, saying they are there without permission and are in “blatant violation” of Iraqi sovereignty. Turkey says the troops were invited by local Iraqi authorities and has ignored the calls.
War of words
The issue has led to a war of words between the two country’s leaders as Iraqi government troops launched a massive military operation to recapture Mosul October 17. Ankara has insisted that its forces should take part in retaking the city, but Baghdad has refused.
The issue of the Turkish forces in Bashiqa grew into a rare and bitter public feud last year between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
At one point, Erdogan gave a speech telling al-Abadi to “know his place,” adding, “you are not at my level, you are not my equivalent, you are not of the same quality as me.”
Al-Abadi responded by mocking Erdogan’s use of a video messaging app during Turkey’s failed coup last year.
Turkish troops in Iraq
An Iraqi court later issued an arrest warrant against Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Ninevah province, of which Mosul is the capital, accusing him of facilitating the entry of the Turkish forces. The troops have trained Sunni fighters loyal to al-Nujaifi and Kurdish forces loyal to Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani — who both have sought greater power away from the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad.
In a press conference Thursday, Erdogan’s spokesman said that Yildirim’s discussions in Iraq will include the Bashiqa dispute, the fight against IS, and the Kurdish Turkish separatist group known as the PKK, which has used Iraqi territory to launch attacks inside Turkey.
Turkey has also deepened its involvement in the war in neighboring Syria, where its forces and allied Syrian opposition fighters are battling both IS extremists and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces. Last month, Russia, which backs the Syrian government, and Turkey, a strong supporter of Syria’s moderate opposition, brokered the current shaky cease-fire, which came into effect December 30.