x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkey 'still willing to talk' with Iraq

Diplomatic language still cannot hide the deep rift that now exists between the nations.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, right, arrives at the North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels, as Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu , left, talks with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in the background.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, right, arrives at the North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels, as Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu , left, talks with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in the background.

ISTANBUL // Turkey said yesterday it was open to dialogue with Iraq, despite Baghdad's public snub of a Turkish government minister.

Ankara and the Iraqi government have been at loggerheads for months. The confrontation is partly fuelled by the Iraqis' growing anger over efforts by Turkey to forge closer ties with northern Iraq's oil-rich Kurdish region, which has its own problems with the central Iraqi government.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, described developments in Iraq as "more worrisome than those in Syria", a Turkish official said yesterday.

The situation in Iraq was one of the issues discussed during a meeting between Mr Davutoglu and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in Brussels yesterday, the Turkish foreign ministry said.

On Tuesday, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, denied Taner Yildiz, Ankara's energy minister, permission to fly to Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, and forced the minister to break off his trip in a government aircraft.

"Despite what has happened to the minister, our aim is still dialogue," a Turkish official said yesterday. He pointed out that Mr Yildiz had reacted with a "sober statement" after the incident. The minister spoke of an "interruption in communication".

But Aziz Hasan Barzani, an Iraqi-Kurdish academic and member of the clan of Iraqi Kurdistan's leader Mesut Barzani, said that the problems ran deeper.

"It is difficult for Turkey to deal with the Iraqi government, especially with Maliki as prime minister," he said.

"Turkey is waiting for the next elections and maybe a new prime minister," said Mr Barzani, who is the vice-dean of Salahaddin University in Erbil and an adviser to the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), a think tank in Ankara.

The Turkish media yesterday described Iraq's decision to deny Mr Yildiz entry into its airspace as a humiliation and an act of revenge by Baghdad, after an unannounced visit by Mr Davutoglu to the disputed city of Kirkuk last year triggered angry Iraqi protests.

"Special ban for the minister," the Radikal newspaper said in its front-page headline yesterday.

Iraq said Mr Yildiz was not allowed to fly to Erbil because the request for the flight failed to comply with regulations.

But reports from Erbil, where an energy conference was underway, suggested the real reason might have been efforts by Baghdad to prevent Mr Yildiz from signing a new agreement for Turkish investments in the region's oil and gas sector.

Turkey wants access to Iraqi-Kurdish energy to diversify its sources and meet increasing demand.

Mr Barzani said the central Iraqi government was unhappy with Turkey's role in the Kurdish north, where Turkish companies are important investors and from where oil is exported to world markets via Turkish territory.

"Baghdad doesn't like to see more Turkish political and economic influence in Iraqi Kurdistan," he said.

Relations between Turkey and the government of Mr Al Maliki have gone from bad to worse in recent months.

The feud is not only over influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also connected to a regional rivalry between predominantly Sunni Turkey and Shiite power Iran, an ally of Mr Al Maliki, Mr Barzani said.

"There has been competition between Turkey and Iran in the Middle East ever since the withdrawal of US troops" from Iraq, he said.

Mr Al Maliki, a Shiite, has strongly criticised Turkey's decision to shelter Iraq's Sunni vice-president Tarek Al Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death for murder by a court in Iraq.

Last month, Mr Maliki and Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused each other of steering their respective countries towards civil war.

A Turkish official said last week that Mr Al Maliki was a politician who "has a problem with himself".

Ankara and Baghdad have also accused each other of inciting sectarian tension and have summoned each other's ambassadors in tit-for-tat manoeuvres.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Florian Neuhof in Erbil, and Reuters