Sunni-Shiite rift main worry in Middle East: Turkish FM Davutoğlu

Sunni-Shiite rift main worry in Middle East: Turkish FM Davutoğlu

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
Sunni-Shiite rift main worry in Middle East: Turkish FM Davutoğlu

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (L) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (R) in Baghdad. AA photo

A Sunni-Shiite rift is a worrying trend in the Middle East but recent developments in Turkey’s ties with Iraq and Iran could help prevent the threat of a sectarian war, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said yesterday, as he visited Baghdad in the latest sign of a thaw in bilateral relations.

The two-day visit, which follows a similar trip to Turkey by Davutoğlu’s counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, last month, included talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Zebari, as well as several other officials and political leaders in Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. 

“Ties have gained a new rhythm with these visits. After my visit, our parliamentary speaker will head to Iraq, and in December, there will be technical talks of the high-level strategic council. After that, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will visit Turkey,” Davutoğlu said, while underlining the softening of political tension in the country.

“Meeting [Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud] Barzani and al-Maliki and [Parliamentary Speaker Osama] al-Nujaifi have all contributed to normalizing ties between Ankara and Baghdad,” he told a group of journalists en route to Baghdad.

When asked if Turkey was opening a clean page with Iraq, he said “yes,” adding that this "normalization" was not related to al-Maliki’s recent visit to Washington, but was merely a "coincidence." 

“The most important goal for us is to naturalize and restore diplomatic and political relations back to their normal state. The second dimension is the Iraqi elections in April 2014. As Turkey, we will remain at the same distance to all parties in Iraq. Ties between Turkey and the northern Iraqi administration do not exclude any party in Iraq,” Davutoğlu said, in reference to deals between Ankara and the Kurdish region in northern Iraq that Baghdad has previously slammed.

“The third and maybe the most important dimension is that when an atmosphere of Sunni-Shiite conflict arises in the context of the Syrian crisis, Turkey-Iraq ties are one of the two things that will break this atmosphere, defuse the tension and spoil the plans of groups that appeal for sectarian clashes,” he added. 

Relations between two countries, which had been on the upswing as recently as 2011, fell off as the two countries clashed over the Syrian crisis and Turkey’s ties with the KRG. Iraq was also frustrated by Turkey’s decision in early 2012 to give refuge to former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was convicted in absentia on charges of organizing death squads.

For his part, Zebari agreed that tension “has ended and we have opened a new page,” speaking during a press conference with Davutoğlu.

The Turkish foreign minister warned repeatedly of the dangers of sectarian conflict. “We see the establishment of a political process, where all ethnic groups will participate, as the most important factor in preventing a clash between Sunnis and Shiites. Iraq is a little Middle East. If there are ethnic clashes in Iraq, it will spread to the region. If ethnic-sectarian clashes spill into Iraq, it will be an unstoppable process. That’s why recent developments in Turkey’s ties with Iraq and Iran will neutralize sectarian war scenarios,” he said.

As part of his meetings with religious leaders, Davutoğlu also held talks yesterday with Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Al-Hakim praised the reconciliation process between the two countries and hailed the efforts of both sides, underlining that mending bilateral ties would also foster regional stability.  They also discussed the sectarian tension in the region and sought ways to defuse it.

“The humanitarian tragedy in Syria, radical groups and the Syrian regime’s oppression are all of our concerns,” Davutoğlu said at a press conference after the meeting.

Davutoğlu and the delegation accompanying him were also scheduled to visit the al-Kadhimiya and al-Azamiyah areas of Baghdad. He is also expected to meet influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani today.