One crisis to the next
What does the Turkish government hope to achieve in its policy towards its Iraqi neighbour, asks Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara
Personal disdain and divergent outlooks have been putting Turkey and Iraq at loggerheads recently, not least because the respective prime ministers of the two countries, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Nuri Al-Maliki, seem not to get along and have clashed on many of the challenges facing the two sides.
This has recast the deep roots the countries share in sectarian, ethnic and sometimes Sunni or Shia terms, with each leader apparently determined to sever the ties linking the two countries and tossing history, geography and shared bloodlines to the wind.
The Turkish Islamist newspaper The Milli Gazette, close to Turkish decision-makers in Istanbul, two months ago published an article that purported to uncover a new plot to overthrow the government of Al-Maliki, describing the Iraqi prime minister as "a new Saddam Hussein" and criticising him for his control of Iraqi state institutions.
Al-Maliki, the paper said, had sought to use Iraqi state institutions to serve his own personal interests and the interests of his party and had waged war on the country's Sunni population. As a result, Al-Maliki was linked to the triangle of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, an Alawite Shia, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, leader of the Shia group Hizbullah, and the Shia leaders of Iran, the paper said.
Ironically, it was only some 15 or so years ago that the personal relationship between the late Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit and the then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was thought of as preventing a collision between the two countries.
The bond between the two leaders had a strong influence in containing the aspirations of the Kurds in northern Iraq, thwarting any separatist tendencies on the part of Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani or dreams of a greater Kurdistan.
It also encouraged the growth of a parallel economy between Turkey and Iraq that circumvented the international sanctions against Iraq, Turkey reducing such restrictions to protect the interests of those living along the border between the two countries.
Now, however, relations between Turkey and Iraq are poor, and they have recently worsened, increasing tensions that began some months ago.
On 3 August, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d'affaires at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad, acting for the ambassador who is currently in Ankara, handing him a strongly worded letter of protest that demanded an immediate explanation of the visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq following talks in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil on 1-2 August.
The visit was described by Iraqi officials as being a violation of their country's sovereignty, with Davutoglu being criticised for breaking diplomatic protocol in making the visit. Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk, only 40km from Erbil, could not have taken place without the approval of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
Al-Maliki had previously warned Barzani that Kirkuk was part of Iraq and should not be viewed as belonging exclusively to the Arabs, Kurds or Turkmens alone. As a result, Davutoglu's visit to the oil-rich region could have been interpreted as a challenge to Al-Maliki, though Erdogan later claimed the foreign minister had visited the city only to visit relatives.
Al-Maliki's warnings to Barzani had originally been well received in Ankara, since Barzani had been suspected of trying to annex the city to a Kurdish homeland that could have threatened Turkish interests.
However, positions have changed, and Turkey has now become Barzani's friend and Al-Maliki's enemy, though experience has shown that the Kurdish leader is a pragmatist and able to change friends at will, making it even more surprising that Davutoglu should apparently be used to settle scores between the Kurdish leader and the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad.
Other challenges continue in the background to this latest crisis, such as the fall-out from Kurdish oil deals, differences over these continuing with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and the building of a pipeline to transfer oil from wells in Kurdistan through Turkey as a possible alternative to the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik line that stretches to the Mediterranean port of Jihan.
Meanwhile, Ankara has continued its provocative policies with regard to Iraq, notably by receiving Iraqi opposition politician Iyad Alawi for a meeting with Erdogan on the same day that Davutoglu arrived in Kirkuk.
The move angered the Iraqi government in Baghdad, since there have been moves by Turkey to support an alliance between Barzani, Alawi and Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr against Al-Maliki, raising questions as to what Ankara is trying to achieve in its policy with regard to Iraq and whether it wants to see a unified Iraqi nation.
Turkey's support for Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Tareq Al-Hashemi, in conflict with Al-Maliki, and for Barzani seemingly contradicts its declared policies of wanting to promote the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq.
The Turkish newspaper Yani Shafaq said recently that the unity of Iraq was not only important for Turkey, but was also vital for other states in the region as it would prevent instability and discourage renewed ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq.
However, it appears that Turkey's foreign policy is now heading in the opposite direction, which could result in a divorce between Turkey and Iraq.
Such a divorce would not necessarily increase the government's domestic support in Turkey, since the sale of crude oil by the Iraqi Kurdish government would fund a potentially independent Kurdish state on the border with Turkey, and this has stirred Turkish public opinion up against the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) and Prime Minister Erdogan.
Left-wing Turkish newspapers have not hidden their distrust of an Iraqi Kurdish state, saying that this could be "a second Israel", waiting for an opportunity to attack not only Iraq but also Turkey itself.
The question arises of where the relationship between Erdogan and Al-Maliki is now heading. The diplomatic scene has been rife with rumours, one being recounted by Gursel Tekin, vice president of the opposition Republican People's Party, who told CNN Turk recently that Erdogan would soon get rid of Davutoglu because the foreign minister's policies had become a burden to the ruling JDP and Turkey.