News Analysis: Turkey, Iraq eye better ties amid challenges

The Philippine Star

ANKARA (Xinhua) - Frequent exchange of high-level visits between Turkey and Iraq, two neighbors sometimes at odds in recent years, is seen as aiming to improve ties amid growing uncertainty in the Middle East.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, arriving in Ankara on Thursday, made conciliatory remarks that signaled Baghdad wanted better relations with Turkey.

The visit, during which Zebari met Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Parliament Speaker Cemil CiCek, followed a trip to Baghdad on Wednesday by the Turkish parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Volkan Bozkir.

Bozkir delivered an invitation from Erdogan to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In mid-September, Usama Abdul Aziz al-Nujayfi, speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, also visited Ankara.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, announced on Friday that he is now preparing to visit Baghdad in two weeks.  

"This shuttle diplomacy indicates that there has been a significant effort on both sides to mend fences despite their differences on a number of issues," Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, who heads Ankara's International Strategic and Security Research Center, told Xinhua.

"The shifting dynamics in the Middle East amid unresolved challenges ... require both Turkey and Iraq to work closely and cooperate on common issues," he added.

Another analyst, Serhat Erkmen, researcher at the Center for the Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara, believed both countries value regional stability and that is what motivates them to normalize ties.


Erkmen said that the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq may be one factor that led Maliki to revise his approach to Turkey toward a more conciliatory stance.

"Iraq has been preparing for the new elections, and the elections are of the utmost importance to Maliki, who broke off relations with everyone within and outside of country in the past, " Erkmen said.

As part of his efforts to turn the elections in his favor, Maliki needs the backing of regional players like Turkey to sustain power-sharing arrangements, especially those with Iraq's Kurds in the north.


Erkmen also noted that Iraq's political stability, security and bilateral economic relations are important to Ankara.

"Iraq's economic potential offers great opportunities for Turkey," he said.

Iraq is Turkey's second largest trading partner after Germany. Last year, trade between Turkey and Iraq amounted to $10.8 billion.

According to Turkish government data, export to Iraq in the first eight months of 2013 stood at $7.6 billion, up 12 percent from the same period last year.

The bulk of Turkey's trade with Iraq has been confined to northern Iraq where Ankara has cozy relations with the Kurdistan regional government. Turkish companies have been facing a host of problems in the south of Iraq where the Maliki government maintains in control.

"Baghdad can easily solve slowed and delayed bureaucratic procedures for Turkish companies" once the two countries have improved their political ties, Erkmen said.


"It is time to close this page and open a new one," Zebari said on Friday. "Although there are differences of opinion on some issues, there aren't any problems that cannot be solved between us. "

Davutoglu, for his part, said there is a strong mutual desire to take relations to a higher level.

"I will visit Baghdad in the first half of November," Davutoglu said. "I will have the opportunity to return to Baghdad, which I have missed so much."

Bilgay Duman, another researcher at ORSAM, said Iraq wants to improve ties with Turkey because Baghdad wants to benefit from Turkey's influence in northern Iraq and in Syria.

"Maliki softens his stance in domestic and foreign policy issues before heading to general elections in 2014," he said, stressing that rapprochement between Turkey and Iraq will benefit the entire region.

In fact, that was the message conveyed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul when he received the Iraqi foreign minister.

Gul said strong collaboration with Iraq would benefit not only the two countries, but the whole region.

"A new phase has started in our relations with Iraq," he said.


Duman, the ORSAM researcher, said Iraq wants to remain engaged with Turkey, as a possible political resolution to the Syrian crisis looms on the horizon, and Turkey's influence on the outcome remains crucial.

Davutoglu signaled that Iraq will be included in discussions on plans to resolve the Syrian crisis in Geneva.

He said Iraq, which borders Syria, should also play a role in preparing for the meeting.

On his part, Zebari underlined that the Syrian crisis has mostly affected Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, countries that are hosting the Syrian refugees.

Erol explained that Maliki has realized he cannot stabilize Iraq without the help of Turkey, and wanted to improve relations with Ankara to secure Turks' support.

"Domestic politics in Iraq where Sunnis and Kurds are marginalized cannot be improved without Turkey's engagement as both groups have trust in Ankara but not in Baghdad," he said.

In a bid to ease domestic concerns in Iraq, the Turkish foreign minister also emphasized on Friday that Turkey never favors any particular side inside Iraq but is a friend to all ethnic groups in the country.

He noted that Iraq's territorial integrity and welfare are strategically important to Turkey as a neighbor.

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