Ankara has strongly rejected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s warning that ethnic and sectarian conflict could engulf Turkey and that its neighbor should focus on its internal problems instead of issuing warnings against Iraq.
A statement released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Friday strongly criticized Maliki’s remarks on Turkey, in which he responded to the Turkish prime minister’s Wednesday remarks on the looming danger of ethnic conflict in Iraq.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey is concerned about sectarian clashes in war-torn Iraq amidst escalating tensions between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional administration.
“We always had concerns that, God forbid, this [conflict] may turn into a sectarian clash. Now our fears are slowly becoming real. This gives us reason to be concerned,” Erdoğan said during a press conference in Ankara before his departure for Pakistan for an official visit.
Referring to the recent clashes between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish regional administration (KRG), Erdogan accused the central Iraqi government of trying to turn the conflict into a civil war.
“The internal situation of Turkey is concerning and Turkey should be aware of this. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan should focus on internal issues particularly [Turkey’s] specter of sectarian and ethnic conflict and should seek ways for a solution,” Maliki said on the Prime Ministry’s official website in response to Erdogan.
Maliki added that he suggests that Erdogan solve the problems of Turkey’s minorities and avoid plunging it into the problems of regional countries.
Turkey’s relations with the central Iraqi government have soured significantly in the recent past due to oil agreements Turkey signed with the Kurdish administration without the consent of the Iraqi government. Turkey independently imports oil from Iraq through a twin pipeline running from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean oil terminal of Ceyhan. Baghdad has warned Turkey that its separate deal in the region could damage trade relations between Iraq and Turkey.
“At the same time, this conflict might be a war for oil. Why? Because the central government wants to show its displeasure with the KRG exporting oil without the knowledge of the Iraqi government,” Erdogan further said.
Maliki also dismissed Erdoğan’s warnings and said the Iraqi central authority won’t allow an oil war to follow the oil dispute. He said Turkey and Iraq could build good ties if Turkey avoids signing separate oil agreements with the Kurdish administration.
Tensions in Iraq rose further when 12 Iraqi troops were killed late on Monday in clashes near the Iraqi city of Tikrit between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish administration — putting neighboring Turkey in a difficult position on how to best respond. On Wednesday, Kurdish commander Mahmoud Sankawi said he had dispatched fighters to the disputed Khanaqin area. The move came a day after the Iraqi government sent tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Kirkuk area, which is also claimed by both sides.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said a comparison of the situation in Iraq with the situation in Turkey is a stark departure from the reality.
The statement described Erdoğan’s remarks as “rightful concerns” for the sake of Iraqi people and said it strongly rejects what it called “groundless claims” by Maliki against Turkey.
Relations between Ankara and Baghdad have also been tense due to what Turkey perceives as the Iraqi Shiite-led government’s attempt to monopolize power at the expense of other groups in the country.
Since the last US troops left the country in December, Iraq has been mired in political infighting among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs that constitute its fragile power-sharing central government.
Turkey’s strained relations with Prime Minister Maliki crystallized after Turkey supported Ayad Allawi, the Sunni leader of the Iraqi election-winning Iraqiya party bloc, in the 2010 Iraqi elections. Erdogan and his Iraqi counterpart have traded tit-for-tat criticisms and accusations several times this year. In April Erdogan accused Maliki of fanning tensions between Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds in Iraq through “self-centered” behavior. Maliki quickly responded that Turkey was becoming a “hostile state” with a sectarian agenda, saying it was meddling in Iraqi affairs, due to Turkey’s support for Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s Sunni vice president, who was sentenced to death in absentia.
Ankara called on Maliki to stop making “imaginary evaluations” of the expectations of Turkish people and urged him to first take concerns expressed by Iraqi political parties seriously and avoid policies that cause escalation of tensions in the country.
Ankara expressed its “complete will” to improve and strengthen bilateral relations with neighboring Iraq and urged the Iraqi prime minister to display his will to improve ties by his government’s “actions and discourse.”
“If this is realized, there will be no obstacle to improve Turkish-Iraqi relations,” the statement concluded.