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Iraq: Despite Differences, Baghdad Aims To Increase Trade With Turkey

  • Charles Recknagel

Ankara and Baghdad have signed an accord to increase trade despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO ally and a base for air patrols over Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel assesses why.

Prague, 2 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey and Iraq do not have an easy relationship.

U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the northern no-fly zone over Iraq fly almost daily from Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey, and almost as regularly they hit the Iraq air defenses that challenge the flights. Turkey also maintains trade sanctions on its neighbor in line with the UN embargo on Iraq since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

At the same time, Ankara has repeatedly sent its army on massive sweeps into northern Iraq to chase down Turkish-Kurd separatist fighters with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. And relations are further strained by disagreements over Turkey's construction of dams at the source of the Euphrates river, which Baghdad says creates a major water shortage downstream in Iraq.

But despite these differences, both sides this week signed an economic cooperation accord aimed at increasing trade between them.

Iraq's Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rashid told reporters after the signing Tuesday in Baghdad that the deal will expand commercial, agricultural, industrial, health and electricity cooperation between the countries. Visiting Turkish Minister of State Edip Safter Gaydali said Ankara's goal is for trade to reach a value of $2.5 billion. That would be the same level of trade the two countries had before UN sanctions went into effect a decade ago. The Turkish official estimated that trade between the two countries currently stands at just $600 million, or about a quarter of the pre-embargo level.

RFE/RL asked Neil Partrick, a Mideast analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, why Ankara and Baghdad now want to raise their trade levels.

Partrick says both sides have strong reasons for reviving cross-border trading:

"Despite all their suspicions and periodic hostilities as neighbors, there is a natural trading relationship. ... They obviously were strong partners [in the past and] a key, crucial pipeline went from northern Iraq into Turkey [although] it's now somewhat in a state of disrepair and subject to international sanctions which Turkey, broadly speaking, respects."

Ankara's reasons to revive trade are economic. Since the UN sanctions went into effect, Ankara has seen its border area near Iraq hard hit by the decrease in commerce with Baghdad. Most trade has lapsed into smuggling. Quantities of oil are carried across the border daily to Turkey hidden in trucks, while consumer goods go in the opposite direction. The international community largely ignores the smuggling in a concession for Turkey's general cooperation on sanctions. But analysts say the contraband trade in no way recompenses Ankara for the lost legal commerce.

For Baghdad, the reasons to raise trade levels are both economic and political. Turkey is one of the few neighboring states -- another is Jordan -- which will trade with Iraq following Baghdad's war with Iran and invasion of Kuwait. And, analysts say, Baghdad may hope increasing trade with Turkey can help weaken Ankara's commitment to the U.S. and British policy of isolating Iraq.

Partrick says Baghdad has increasingly sought to influence Turkey to reduce its isolation over the past year.

"Iraq also periodically has tried to improve relations with Turkey. About 12 months ago, Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister ... [made a] visit to Ankara and it was an attempt also, aside from trade interests, to try and see whether Turkey's periodic disquiet with the arrangements for the containment of Iraq, involving bombing that takes place and policing of the northern no-fly zone that takes place from the Incirlik airbase in Turkey, could be somehow encouraged by trying to warm relations. I think what is happening now ... builds on the natural trading relationship but is another way of Iraq trying to explore whether the periodic Turkish unease with the U.S.-led policy can be encouraged."

Turkey's Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is a lifelong leftist, and as an opposition figure showed some sympathy for Iraq. Some Islamist groups in Turkey also resent Ankara's following a U.S. lead in its policy to Iraq. But analysts say any hopes in Baghdad that this will translate into cracks in the U.S.-Turkish relationship are unlikely to be realized. Partrick says:

"The NATO partnership and the politically significant role that Turkey had in the alliance to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the very strong relationship that politically Turkey and the U.S. have, and Turkey also moving closer to Europe, all these are reasons for Iraq -- although it is periodically subject to enormous fits of self-delusion -- not to believe that it can really prise Turkey apart. But given that there are periodic Turkish complaints, it likes to play on that and, of course, it sees trading connections as a useful way of leaving itself less isolated."

But even as Iraq and Turkey look at possibilities for increased trade, analysts say Baghdad may face real constraints on how much oil it can bring to any new deal.

The reason is that it is unclear how much more oil Iraq's already hard-pressed oil infrastructure can produce. Many energy analysts feel Iraq's production last year of an average of some 2.2 million barrels per day represents about the maximum it can do without new parts or without seriously damaging its production facilities.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution in December to lift the cap on how much oil Iraq can sell under the oil-for-food program. The cap, now set at some 5.3 billion every six months, will be lifted when the current phase of the oil-for-food program expires in May.