Tension between Turkey and Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government over Ankara’s burgeoning ties with the oil-reach autonomous Kurdistan region and long support for Sunni-led anti-government protests in Baghdad seems to have gained a new dimension as Iraqi officials reject pleas to shelter the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in their territory, something that might harm the ongoing peace process next door.
The first weary group of Kurdish fighters started arriving in the northern Kurdistan region from Turkey early last week, as part of a peace deal with Ankara aimed at ending the 30 years of conflict.
Baghdad for its part isn’t keen on the move and has announced that the PKK “is not welcome in Iraqi territory.”
“The Iraqi government… doesn’t accept the entry of armed groups into its territory that could be used to impact stability of Iraq or neighboring states,” the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Ministry said last week, in a statement on its website.
On May 15, Iraq’s Cabinet also issued a formal complaint to Ankara, calling the presence of the PKK armed men inside its territory “a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and independence,” adding that the move “causes severe damage to neighborly relations between the two countries and their common interests.”
The Cabinet also voted to ask the UN Security Council to adopt a “suitable resolution to prevent any violation of Iraq’s sovereignty,” according to the government statement.
Baghdad also urged that it would ask the Islamic States Organization and the Arab League “for additional support.”
Ankara didn’t officially respond to Baghdad’s concerns. In the meantime, local media cited the Foreign Ministry, mentioning that “these all are connected with the contestations between Bagdad and Erbil.”
“The PKK came from Iraq anyway… and would enter and exit periodically. Why are they now a problem?” Milliyet newspaper quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying.
For veteran ambassador Murat Bilhan, who for many years headed the Strategic Research Department at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Iraq’s complains against Ankara “are baseless and rather surprising.”
Turkey, he mentioned, “has nothing to do with Kurdish militants’ choice to move to Iraq after withdrawing from the Turkish territories.”
“We didn’t send [the PKK fighters] to Iraq… We just said that they have to leave our country. It could be Europe, Middle East or any other place that they choose. Turkey doesn’t hand them to anyone”, he said in an interview, adding that, “the problem is between Iraq and the PKK.”
The group of at least 13 PKK men and women crossed into the Heror area of northern Iraq early Tuesday, monitored on the Turkish side by the MIT intelligence agency and across the border in Iraq by Iraqi Kurdish authorities.
For many analysts in Ankara, such as Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, “it is well known that the KRG has been supportive of this [Turkey-PKK] deal and the KRG will also allow these armed rebels to come back to that region”.
“The central government in Baghdad may not like the prospect of having armed PKK rebels crossing coming over to Iraq from Turkey but it does not have the capability to prevent this critical step in terms of Turkey’s peace process from being carried out,” Ulgen said in an interview.
“It is also worth noting that this dynamic has already been initiated with a first wave of PKK militants leaving Turkish territory,” he added.
Prof. Mehmet Sahin, Middle East Advisor at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, agrees that, Iraqi leaders “unlikely can block or do anything against Ankara’s peace plans”, as Baghdad has little control of Iraq’s northern border, which is run by Iraqi Kurds.
“The question is: why does Baghdad use such a rhetoric language right now?,” he said in an interview, adding that, most likely, “these all related Iraq’s domestic and policy and foreign supporters, such as Iran.”
Some 2,000 PKK fighters are expected to move next door with the full withdrawal that to take three to four months.