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CİHAN ÇELİK > Can Kurds bridge the Iraqi-Turkish gap?

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The heightened deadly sectarian tensions with Iraqi Sunnis had the Shiite Iraqi prime minister shifting his focus to an unexpected ally as he apparently forged a deal with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) despite long-standing disputes, particularly on oil and gas issues.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has led a vendetta against Iraq’s former Sunni rulers from the Saddam Hussein era, was on the verge of triggering the beginning of downfall a few days ago when he replaced the two boycotting Kurdish members of his Cabinet. He has been at odds with the KRG for some time, and the tensions were often volatile, but his move could have put the last nail in his sectarian-fuelled political coffin. That is why his move to replace the ministers was immediately reversed before the ink of the decision had dried, and the Shiite and Kurdish Iraqi leaders decided to meet for their latest round of a quarrel in a surprising meeting, which ended with a deal for rapprochement.

It was in fact not only al-Maliki, who turned to an old Kurdish foe to hammer out a deal amid the rising threat from the other Sunni foe, but also the KRG, which could have chosen to ally with the Sunnis – as well as other anti-al-Maliki Shiites – in an ultimate alliance against al-Maliki. That might be a first step in the long run against the sectarian-based politics and their further tense ramifications in Iraq.

However, still haunted by the past, in which Iraqi Kurds suffered much under the Sunni rulers, the KRG officials, namely regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, preferred to turn the crisis into an opportunity by drawing closer to al-Maliki, whose rule is now being threatened by his vendetta with the Sunnis in a conflict that might lead to isolation by his Western partners if the level of sectarian violence gets worse.

On the other hand, the unexpected, temporary and fragile alliance between the Iraqi premier and the KRG has the potential to serve as a regional arbitrator in the tense relationship between Ankara and Baghdad. The Turkish-Iraqi tensions have been running high lately due to the blossoming relationship between Arbil and Ankara, especially in trade and energy issues, and Baghdad’s firm objections against the energy deals between the two.

The Turkish-KRG reconciliation has become crucial as Ankara has engaged in a long, tough quest to make peace with its own Kurds and expected the Iraqi Kurds’ political blessing and support for the ongoing talks and future pullout of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants to northern Iraq.

The Arbil-Baghdad thaw has also come at a time when al-Maliki also realized that the conflicting status quo with Turkey can no longer prevail. Recently, he extended an olive branch to Turkey to mend ties, but the Ankara government snubbed his call, clearly not wanting to jeopardize its ties with the KRG. But now the thin political balances in Iraq have changed and the Turkish leaders can be more relaxed about soothing ties with al-Maliki amid his settlement with Iraqi Kurds.

In the wider international scope, some observers claim that the agreement between al-Maliki and the KRG has been initiated by Iran, which has close ties with the Shiite Iraqi prime minister, who took shelter in the Islamic Republic during his fight against Saddam Hussein. There has been no solid and official base for this claim, but with U.S. opposition and objections to the recent Turkish-KRG rapprochement in mind, a possible Iranian intermediary role could serve well Tehran’s interest both in Iraq and at a broader regional level. Fearing that Turkey’s thaw in ties with the KRG might encourage aspirations about separation in Iraq, Washington remained hesitant on improving Arbil-Ankara relations, and it is still relatively mum on the recent Baghdad-KRG deal.

Right now, it is an optimistic, but not impossible, scenario to think that the recent Baghdad-Arbil deal may hold in the future and serve as an ice-breaker for the Turkish-Iraqi chill. But what is crystal clear is that it surely bought more time for al-Maliki, as well as the KRG, in a country which has long been sitting on the verge of a civil war next to another in the region.

May/04/2013

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