A Sunni-Shiite rift is a worrying trend in the Middle East but recent developments in Turkey’s ties with Iraq and Iran could 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 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. The foreign minister and the delegation accompanying him were also scheduled to visit al-Kadhimiya and al-Azamiyah areas of Baghdad. He is also expected to meet influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani today.
Praising the latest rapprochement with the neighboring country, Davutoğlu emphasized the importance of the mutual visits.
“The ties have gained 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,” Davutoğlu told a group of journalists en route to Baghdad.
When asked if Turkey was opening a clean page with Iraq, the top diplomat said “yes,” adding that the normalization was not related to al-Maliki’s recent visit to Washington but was merely a coincidence.
Zebari also said the tension “has ended and we have opened a new page,” during a press conference with Davutoğlu.
“The most important goal for us is to naturalize and restore diplomatic and political relations back to their normal state,” Zebari said.
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 left 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.
“The second dimension is 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.
“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 is one of the two things that will break this atmosphere, defuse the tension and spoil the plans of groups that appeal for sectarian clashes. The second one is Turkey-Iran ties,” he said.
“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,” the foreign minister said. “That’s why recent developments in Turkey’s ties with Iraq and Iran will neutralize sectarian war scenarios.”
As part of his meetings with religious leaders, Davutoğlu 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 secterian 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.