Division of Iraq becomes Turkey’s main concern

Division of Iraq becomes Turkey’s main concern

Division of Iraq becomes Turkey’s main concern

Residents demand Iraq's Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi to be put on trial during a demonstration outside the headquarters of Diyala local government in central Baquba, about 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad December 20, 2011. REUTERS Photo

Despite the fact that Turkish politics was almost totally occupied with French Parliamentary vote to criminalize the denial of Armenian genocide allegations, Iraq was raised to the first rank among Turkey’s foreign and security policy worries last week.

The reason was a court order against Tariq al-Hashemi, the deputy to Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani. Accused of subversive acts against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, Hashemi immediately left Baghdad to hide in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controlled northern sector of Iraq, bordering Iran and Turkey.

This development was alarming in Ankara, since al-Hashemi belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam, whereas al-Maliki is Shiite and Talabani is of Kurdish origin. Therefore in one single incident all main ethnical and religious fault lines in Iraq were shaken and on the day after the last American soldier left Iraq for Kuwait.

Ankara has been expecting something bad to happen after U.S. troops evacuated following U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visits to Iraq earlier December. But as one ranking Turkish official told me last week, “We thought the al-Maliki government or Shiite powers in general would wait until the official end of American presence by the end of the month.” They did not expect that al-Maliki was going to use the ‘surprise factor.’

Al-Maliki immediately issued a statement calling Massoud Barzani, the head of the KRG to send al-Hashemi to Baghdad for trials and should not let him to go to another country. Since al-Hashemi would not go to Iran or Syria under control of Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran, the only country al-Maliki meant was Turkey. Al-Hashemi made an appearance the next day in Arbil, where Barzani’s headquarters are and then went to Sulaymaniyah, President Talabani’s hometown.

In an interview in Sulaymaniyah with Aslı Aydıntaşbaş of Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper yesterday, al-Hashemi linked the stability of Iraq with stability of Turkey.

That is exactly the reason for Ankara’s worries. Ankara believes that Iran is behind what is happening in Iraq nowadays. “Tehran would like to see an Iraq under Shiite control,” one high ranking source explained how Ankara considered the situation. “If they understand that this would not be possible then they might want to secure at least the Shiite populated south of the country.”

That might lead up to division of the country and the Kurdish region in the north will be left with one option only – even if they declare an independent Kurdistan – in order to survive and that would be to be attached to Turkey which would be an exit for their oil and gas production and also protection. Speaking of security, both Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials are aware that the issue of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in the KRG region to carry out attacks in Turkey will not be an item untouched.

A divided Iraq will have serious affects on Turkey’s own Kurdish problem and bring additional security burdens. But the troublesome PKK presence in Iraq could also turn into a bargaining chip in Barzani’s hands in his encounters with Turkey.

On the other hand, the Shiite region has Basra as the biggest Iraqi city on the shores of the Persian Gulf, where the oil and gas terminals pump some 40 percent of exports to outer markets.

Iran has started a 10-day military exercise in the strait of Hurmuz, the narrow outlet of the Gulf. And Iranian Chief of Staff General Hassan Firouzabadi said yesterday Iran was “ready to expand military links with Iraq,” only to be welcomed by Saadoun Al-Dulaimi, al-Maliki’s acting Defense Minister. Iran also does not hide its disturbance from Turkey’s getting ready to activate the NATO Missile Shield radar this week. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s timing in his visit to Armenia three days ago was noted in Ankara.
Those are the reasons why Iraq is now a bigger headache for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than Syria and France.