The war of words between Ankara and Baghdad is worsening after Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki branded Turkey a “hostile state” and the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region hinted at secession.
Tensions between the neighboring countries flared last week when Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Maliki’s “self-centered” policies had exacerbated the sectarian divide between Iraq’s Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.
Maliki responded by accusing Erdoğan of the same by interfering in Iraqi politics. He also said that Turkey aspired to “hegemony” in the Middle East.
Turkey, a majority Sunni nation but nominally secular, certainly seeks a leadership position in the region but fears of a revived Turkish Empire may have more to do with historical prejudice than fact. Iraq was an Ottoman province for nearly four centuries before it became a British mandate after the First World War.
The Turks worry that sectarian violence in Iraq — which has only recovered pace since American troops left in December — and Syria will lead to a wider conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Maliki’s rapprochement with Shiite Iran is therefore regarded with apprehension in most Sunni states.
Iraq’s northern Kurdistan has largely escaped the unrest and is attracting business. Arbil signed an oil exploration contract with the American company ExxonMobil last year, prompting the central government in Baghdad to suspend payments to firms that operate in the north. The Kurds, in turn, stopped oil exports to the capital.
More than half of Turkey’s $12 billion trade with Iraq last year was with the Kurds, even if the Turks battle a Kurdish independence movement in their own country.
Erdoğan, earlier this month, met with Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi who has sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdistan after Maliki’s government accused him of leading death squads against Shiites. Hashimi denies the charges which he says are “politically motivated.”
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has similarly criticized Maliki and suggested that his region may break away from Baghdad. “What threatens the unity of Iraq is dictatorship and authoritarian rule,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Earlier in the week, Barzani urged the United States to halt the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Iraqi while Maliki is prime minister for fear that they could be used against the Kurds.
The Americans have agreed to sell 36 warplanes to Baghdad in a multibillion dollar deal aimed at increasing the capabilities of the country’s fledgling air force.