ISTANBUL (ANKARA)–As Ankara readies to work with the Iraqi administration it tried to have unseated in the last election, officials have expressed confidence that Turkey will continue to play a role in Iraq, politically and economically.
“Iraq cannot afford to turn its back on Turkey,” one diplomat familiar with Iraqi affairs was quoted as saying by the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
Turkey’s efforts to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration, based on a Shiite-Kurdish coalition with a Sunni-backed one in the March elections constituted a perhaps-unprecedented level of involvement for Ankara in a neighboring country’s domestic affairs.
Dissatisfied with al-Maliki’s tendency toward “one-man rule,” as disclosed in confidential U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Ankara pushed for a government led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Sunni-backed al-Iraqiyya bloc. Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu is quoted as saying in one cable that al-Maliki is “getting out of control.”
Officials, however, do not expect Turkey to face any negative consequences from its involvement in Iraq’s elections.
“The problem stems not from [al-Maliki], but from the fact that the prime minister [role] has assumed extraordinary powers and this leads anyone in this position to have dictatorial tendencies,” the diplomat told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey’s policies in the near future will depend on al-Maliki’s ability to manage a balanced, functional administration. “He has a very difficult job. By trying to reconcile with everyone to form the government he made everyone unhappy as well,” said Bilgay Duman, an expert on Middle East issues from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or ORSAM.
The population census, expected to be held this year, as well as the Kirkuk issue, a region where a sizable Turkmen community lives, will be two key areas closely monitored by Turkey.
Despite a recent statement by Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, that Kirkuk is, and will remain, part of “Iraqi Kurdistan,” Turkish observers seem confident that Kurdish groups understand the problem cannot be solved unless there is an understanding with the Turkmens. Though violence is a possibility in Kirkuk, due to the presence of Peshmerga forces in the city, where Arabs live as well, the likelihood of restraint on all sides seem higher than in the past.
“Everyone [involved] in this issue is aware that they cannot impose a solution on the others,” said one Turkish official.
A Hand in Iraq’s Economy
While continuing to closely monitor the political situation in Iraq, Turkey is also expected to push for an increased economic presence in the country, especially in the south, in 2011, following what it considers a “lost year” due to the elections. Economic relations have boomed in recent years as Turkey’s exports to Iraq rose to $6 billion in 2009, compared to some $900 million in 2003.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are expected to travel to Iraq this month with the aim of reviving the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, which gathers dozens of ministers from the two countries.
Turkey also seeks to win bids that are expected to be opened this year and has set its sights on the energy sector as well. The absence of an oil law for exploration and exportation has not prevented the central government in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdish administration in the north, from exploring ways to cooperate with third countries. “I expect Turkish private and public companies to increase their activities in the energy sector this year,” Duman said.
Interfering with Elections
Davutoğlu has named Iraq as one of the four countries whose internal political stability is of high importance to Turkey, alongside Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon.
“We are the most affected by the fragile political setups in these countries,” the foreign minister said at a recent press conference. “We did not name a government [in Iraq]. All we did was say, ‘Don’t have a government without the al-Iraqiyya bloc.’ We support all structures that include Sunnis and Shiites together,” Davutoğlu said, calling on all sides not to identify their parties by Sunni or Shiite names. He added that this is why al-Maliki chose the name “State of Law coalition” for the bloc he formed with supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“I don’t think we can call it interference in [Iraq’s] internal affairs. A Pandora’s box was opened following the U.S. military intervention,” a senior Turkish diplomat told the Daily News. “Sunni groups did not want to be part of the government. We tried to tell them it would be a mistake. We convinced Sunni groups to participate in the 2005 elections.
“We might have created the perception that Turkey was supporting the Sunnis against the Iranian support of Shiites. But we have not discriminated against any group,” the diplomat added. “We have been in touch with all groups in Iraq. We encouraged the Sunni participation because Iraq needs an all-encompassing government. We tried to eliminate an imbalance in the Iraqi administration.”
Though it was unsuccessful in replacing al-Maliki, or Jalal Talabani as president, Turkey tried to convince Allawi to at least take part in the government.
“We contributed to the formation of the latest composition of the [Iraqi] government,” Davutoğlu said–a view confirmed by Duman. “I was told by all groups I met in Iraq that Turkey’s efforts with al-Iraqiyya helped the formation of the new government,” he said. “Turkey has started to have its weight felt in Iraq as a result of its policies since 2007. I believe it will continue to play an influential role in all processes in Iraq.”