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Iraq: Ankara Creating Closer Ties With Baghdad

  • Charles Recknagel

Turkey and Iraq are building closer ties a decade after the Gulf crisis. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what Turkey is seeking in its relations with Iraq in this first part of a two-part series.

Ankara, 17 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Iraq invaded Kuwait a decade ago, Turkey was the first regional country to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to drive his forces from the emirate.

But since then, Ankara -- which officially continues to enforce UN sanctions on Iraq -- has steadily moved toward rebuilding ties with Baghdad.

In recent months, there have been signals the stronger ties could soon include Turkey upgrading its diplomatic representation in Baghdad from charge d'affaires to ambassador. That would match Iraq's ambassadorial level representation in Ankara.

Talk of a diplomatic upgrade intensified two months ago when Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Faruk Logoglu visited Baghdad and the Iraqis told him they would welcome a Turkish ambassador to Baghdad. Last month, the Turkish Daily News reported the new Turkish ambassador likely would be Mehmet Akat, now a ranking diplomat in Ankara's embassy in London.

But other Turkish foreign ministry officials have privately denied to RFE/RL that Ankara will soon upgrade its representation. They say the matter remains unsettled.

Turkish analysts say any upgrading in diplomatic representation would be a sign that Ankara wants to increase cooperation with Iraq on regional security issues.

Seyfi Tashan of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara says Turkey is growing increasingly worried over the future of northern Iraq. In the decade since the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds in that area have become used to administering themselves outside Baghdad's control.

Tashan says that constitutes a major security threat for Turkey, which is only now emerging from a 15-year battle with the separatist, Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"The uncontrolled region in the north [of Iraq] has caused tremendous problems for us as a PKK refuge area, and is still a PKK refuge area. We in the past could cooperate against insurgency with the Iraqi governments, but now Iraq has no control over the region and we are afraid that in order to create a regular administration [there] a sort of independent Kurdish state is being created in northern Iraq because of the U.S. policies in the region."

All parties in the region -- including the main Iraqi-Kurd factions -- say they support the territorial integrity of Iraq. Under a U.S.-brokered accord two years ago, the rival factions -- known by their acronyms, KDP and PUK -- agreed to create a united administration for northern Iraq. But as yet they have done no more than maintain their ceasefire.

Turkey has sought to exert influence over events in northern Iraq by building links to one of the two main Iraqi-Kurd factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). It has created military ties by allying with the KDP against the PKK and, in exchange, periodically aiding the KDP on the battlefield against the second main Iraqi-Kurd faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And economic ties with the KDP have grown with Turkey's importing Iraqi diesel from Baghdad through KDP territory, in violation of UN sanctions on Iraq.

But analysts say that despite Ankara's growing influence in northern Iraq, Turkey remains unhappy with the situation there. And it sees forging closer political and economic ties with Baghdad as a way of building additional leverage over the region.

Baghdad, though it has no forces in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, remains a powerful player and regularly tries to influence the affairs of both Iraqi-Kurd factions. Like Ankara, too, it periodically intervenes in fighting between the two Iraqi-Kurdish factions, most notably four years ago when it sent troops to help the KDP temporarily push the PUK out across the border into Iran.

If Turkey does upgrade its representation in Baghdad, the diplomatic initiative would match recent progress toward reinvigorating the two countries' economic links.

A high-level Turkish delegation visited Iraq early this year to discuss ways to increase trade within the framework of the UN's oil-for-food accord, which allows Iraq to sell oil abroad and import goods for humanitarian assistance. During the visit, Turkish Minister of State Edip Safter Gaydali said that Ankara wants to raise its trade with Iraq to the level that existed before UN sanctions were imposed.

Prior to the Gulf crisis, Iraq was Turkey's fourth-largest trading partner and its top crude-oil supplier. The two countries' total yearly trade was estimated at $2.5 billion. But Turkey's official observance of trade sanctions on Iraq has caused trade to plunge to a current level of some $200 million a year, most of it is under the UN's oil-for-food program.

Turkish analysts say Turkey and Iraq are likely to build increasingly strong diplomatic and economic ties as the Gulf crisis recedes further into the past. But they also point out the two remain separated by strong differences: notably Ankara's decision to allow its NATO allies -- the United States and Britain -- to patrol the northern no-fly zone over Iraq from Turkey. In addition, Turkey regularly sends its army into northern Iraq to attack PKK bases, drawing charges of violating Iraq's sovereignty.

That means both sides are likely to want concessions in exchange for any improved cooperation.

Umit Ozdag of the Ankara-based Center for Eurasian and Strategic Studies, or ASAM, says Turkey will demand the status of a favored trading partner with Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Iraq, he says, will demand symbols that Turkey recognizes its sovereignty.

"What Saddam can ask is that before [Turkey's] military drives, Ankara [should] ask for formal permission from Baghdad. This will stress the territorial integrity of Iraq and Turkey's acceptance of this territorial integrity."

But Ozdag say there also will be clear limits set by the Turkish side on what it will not discuss. Off the negotiation agenda, he says, will be anything that might make it appear Ankara is backsliding in its commitments to the United States and Britain to let their planes patrol Iraqi air space from Turkish soil.

(The second of two articles on Turkish-Iraqi relations looks at how Turkey's political parties regard the international crisis over Iraq.)