Iraqi’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, branded Turkey a “hostile state” on Friday and accused his northern neighbor of seeking “hegemony” in the Middle East.
Maliki responded to comments made by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday when he accused the Iraqi leader of fanning tensions between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurds with his “self-centered” ways.
Sectarian tensions flared in December when Shia prime minister Maliki tried to remove his Sunni deputy Saleh al-Mutlaq and sought an arrest warrant for Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi. Hashimi is still on the run.
Turkey, a majority Sunni nation but nominally secular, is worried that the situation in Iraq and increasingly sectarian violence in Syria could lead to a wider conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the region. Maliki’s rapprochement with Shiite Iran is regarded with apprehension in most Sunni states.
The Atlantic Sentinel‘s Jennifer Bushaw predicted that this would happen in October of last year, before the American army retreat forced the Iraqis to reconsider their security position.
Bushaw warned, “the country will no longer have the same military strength and would not be able to fend off Iranian advances, which could manifest in diplomatic and economic pressures, increased militant attacks by Shiite insurgents or just plain military intimidation.”
Whatever Maliki’s motives, his isolation among Arab leaders was evidenced earlier this month when he insisted that there was no reason to suppose that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would soon have to resign.
Assad is Iran’s closest Arab ally but has come under fire from other regional leaders because of the brutal crackdown of anti-government protests which he has presided over.
Meanwhile, in the north, the autonomous Kurdish province of Iraq has cultivated ties with Ankara but soured relations with Bagdad. The rift between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the capital worsened late last year when the former signed an oil exploration agreement with the American supermajor ExxonMobil over the objections of the central government. The Kurds halted oil exports when Bagdad stopped paying firms operating in the north.
Despite the growing political divide, Iraq is Turkey’s second largest commercial partner after Germany. The trade volume between the two countries reached $12 billion last year. More than half was with the Kurdistan region which has witnessed an influx of Turkish businesses in recent years.