Warming Relations Between Turkey and Iraqi
By Mohammed A. Salih
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — It was the most glamorous
reception that the government of Iraqi Kurdistan had
ever given a visiting foreign leader. The main
streets of the capital Erbil were adorned with
flags, Turkish ones visibly outnumbering those of
Kurdistan or Iraq.
Kurdish leaders stood to the side of the red carpet
at the newly-built Erbil International Airport to
welcome the guest of honor: none other than the
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Just three years ago it was inconceivable for even
the most optimistic person here to believe that a
Turkish prime minister would ever set foot in Erbil,
let alone receive such a welcome.
In February 2008, officials in Ankara were
threatening Iraqi Kurdish leaders with a large-scale
military invasion to punish them for allowing
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Erbil, Kurdistan
region of Iraq. Photo: Rudaw.net
the guerillas of the
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to operate on their
soil. Erdogan’s arrival in Erbil at the helm of a
large diplomatic and business delegation represented
a high-level recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan, and
with it the breaking of a long-standing taboo in
Turkish foreign policy.
Also during his visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, the
Turkish Prime Minister accompanied by the president
of the Kurdistan region inaugurated the Turkish
Consulate in the capital Erbil.
“We consider this to be a very historic moment,”
said Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s
Kurdistan Region, during the official inauguration
of the Erbil airport. “We believe that this visit
will build a very solid bridge in bilateral
relations between Iraq and Turkey and between the
Kurdistan Region and Turkey in particular.”
The point was not missed by observers.
“When we recall how in the past his government was
suspicious about the Kurdistan Regional Government
(KRG) for all kinds of reasons, his [Erdogan’s]
visit certainly looks like a major leap forward,”
Cengiz Aktar, a columnist and political science
professor at Turkey’s Bahcesehir University in
Istanbul, told Rudaw.
Referring to Erdogan’s visit to the Shiite holy city
of Najaf prior to his trip to Erbil, Aktar cautioned
that it wouldn’t be wise to read it as a policy line
vis-à-vis Iraqi Kurdistan separate from an overall
Iraq policy. “Turkey won’t go so far as to privilege
the north and neglect the rest of Iraq. The visit to
Najaf is a clear sign of that,” he said.
Many consider business to be the major engine of the
growing ties between Kurdistan Region and Turkey.
The new airport in Erbil, built by the Turkish firm
Makyol, is one of the many projects carried out by
Turkish companies in Iraqi Kurdistan. During his
visit Erdogan said that last year Turkey did more
than $7 billion worth of business in Iraq, more than
half of which took place in the three Kurdish
provinces of Erbil, Sulaimani and Dohuk,
“We have historical and cultural bonds with Iraq and
with this beautiful [Kurdistan] region,” said the
Turkish prime minister during a speech at the
airport, adding that Turkish Airlines, the country
largest air carrier, will start regular flights to
Erbil in mid-April in a bid to bring Turkey and Iraq
“Now we will be connected by airways. But I don’t
want to call it airways; I’d rather call it ‘the way
of the citizens,’ and through this way of the
citizens we will be connected to each other and
connected to the rest of the world,” Erdogan said.
The burgeoning relations come despite longtime
Turkish fears over the possibility of the
establishment of an independent Kurdish state in
northern Iraq. Turkey has,www.ekurd.netin
recent years, adopted a policy of “zero problems”
with its neighbors as part of efforts to enhance
regional security and increase its influence in the
As Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan rush to expand their
ties, the major challenge to their bilateral
relations is the ongoing conflict between the PKK
and Turkish state.
The nearly three-decades long fight between the two
sides has claimed approximately 40,000 lives, and
with the recent termination of a unilateral PKK
ceasefire, clashes might break out again in future.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has taken unprecedented steps
in granting more rights to its considerable Kurdish
population and has embarked on a process of opening
up to its neighbors and the Middle East.
While Turkey’s uneasy relationship with its Kurds is
often seen as a threat to the future of its ties to
Iraqi Kurdistan, experts believe that it is also one
area that could further those ties. Iraqi Kurdish
leaders were believed to have played a major role in
persuading the PKK to announce a ceasefire that
lasted for over six months.
Amid the euphoria in Iraqi Kurdistan over Erdogan’s
visit, some criticize the reception that was given
“Our relations with Turkey are now normal, and there
has been quite a good deal of progress in areas of
economy and trade. But the relations are imbalanced
and reluctant in the realm of politics,” said Hemn
Mirani, an expert on Turkey and professor of
political science in Erbil’s Salahaddin University.
“The authorities in the Kurdistan Region hang
thousands of Turkish flags in Erbil’s streets to
welcome Erdogan, while last year Turkey was not
ready to even put an Iraqi flag next to Kurdistan
When Barzani visited Ankara last year, the fact that
there was no Iraqi or Kurdish flag behind him during
a press conference caused uproar in the Kurdish
media; it was interpreted as Turkey’s unwillingness
to give Barzani any weight in Iraqi politics.
Another major reason for Turkey’s interest in Iraqi
Kurdistan is the region’s natural resources. In the
past, the Kurdish government has awarded several
contracts to Turkish companies, such as Genel Enerji,
to drill and excavate oil. But the biggest prize is
the strategic Nabucco pipeline that will transfer
natural gas from northern Iraq to Europe through
Kurdistan’s minister of natural resources, Ashti
Hawrami, said in early March that the Kurdistan
Region sits atop “at least 45 billion barrels of oil
and as much as 100-200 trillion cubic feet of gas.”
During Erdogan’s visit to Erbil, Hawrami met with
his Turkish counterpart Taner Yildiz to “discuss
energy cooperation,” but no statements were made to
the media regarding the details of the meeting.
Hawrami had recently said that Kurdish gas reserves
can supply the needs of the projected Nabucco
pipeline—meant to transport oil and gas from
northern Iraq to Europe via Turkey—for 100 years.
Currently Iraq’s oil is exported to Turkey through
the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which is controlled by
Iraq’s federal government.
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