Iraq Lashes Out at Turkey as Sunni-Shiite Rift Grows
Iraq summoned Turkey's ambassador on Monday to protest what it called Ankara's meddling in Iraqi politics, the latest sign of a rising rift between Sunni Turkey and its Shiite neighbors.
Iraq's government was angered by recent warnings from Turkish leaders that Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq could engulf the entire Islamic world, as well as by Turkey's support for a Sunni rival to Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
"Turkey interferes by backing certain political figures and blocs" in Iraq, Mr. Maliki told The Wall Street Journal last month. "I believe Turkey is unqualified to intervene in the region's flash points." In a weekend interview with Arabic language Al-Hurra TV station, Mr. Maliki went further. "Unfortunately, Turkey is playing a role that could lead to a catastrophe or civil war in the region," he said.
Iraqi officials were particularly angered by public Turkish comments on the case of Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's Sunni vice president. Mr. Hashemi took refuge in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq late last year, after the government accused him of leading death squads against Shiites.
But analysts say the rapid deterioration of relations between Ankara and Baghdad also reflects the wider conflicting interests of Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran in the wake of the U.S. drawdown from Iraq and of the Arab Spring, now lapping at the borders of both Iraq and Turkey, in Syria.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned on the eve of a visit to Tehran earlier this month against the risk of a "Cold War" developing between Shiites and Sunnis across the Middle East.
"Tension is now rising between Turkey and Iran and it will be increasingly difficult to manage as it's being aggravated by sectarian tensions. These problems are likely to be long-term; I don't see an easy solution," said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Baghdad's concerns also have been fueled lately by fears that Syria's uprising is developing into a Sunni insurgency that Mr. Maliki has said could spread "like a house on fire," into Iraq. A fresh wave of violence has killed more than 200 Iraqis since the end of the U.S. military mission on Dec. 18.
Unlike Iraq, which is majority Shiite, Syria is about 75% Sunni, but it is governed mainly by a minority of Alawites, a Shiite sect. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's Tehran-backed regime has expressed deep anger and distrust of Ankara due to its decision to provide haven to mainly Sunni Syrian rebels.
Turkey says its actions are purely humanitarian, made in the face of Syria's brutal crackdown on protesters. It also denies any effort to meddle in Iraqi politics.
Turkish analysts say Ankara is a reluctant hard-power player in the region. for all its neo-Ottoman pretensions, Only a year ago, Mr. Assad was Exhibit A in Turkey's "zero-problems-with-neighbors" foreign policy. That approach boosted relations and trade with neighboring Muslim regimes, while downgrading ties with former ally Israel. The Arab Spring, however, upended that policy as allies such as former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were pushed aside and Shiite-Sunni tensions rose across the region. In a major change, Turkey agreed last fall to host a North Atlantic Treaty Organization missile-defense system, which was designed by the U.S. to contain Iran.
Turkish and U.S. diplomats say they now cannot remember a time when cooperation between Ankara and Washington was closer, after a period of significant strain in 2009-2010.
"When Prime Minister Erdogan came to Washington in 2009, he sounded almost like the ambassador from Iran. Now he sounds quite different…After a period of suspicion, Turkey and the United States have come closer together," said Stephen Kinzer, a visiting professor of international relations at Boston University.
Turkish officials insist relations with Tehran remain strong. Turkey buys around 30% of its oil from Iran and is the second-largest consumer of Iranian gas, after Russia. Official data shows that Turkey's bilateral trade volume with Iraq in 2011 jumped by nearly 50% on the year to $11 billion, with much of the increase coming in the Shiite-dominated areas around Baghdad and in the South.
In an interview inside Iraqi Kurdistan this month, Mr. Hashemi said that while his political bloc had received advice from Turkey and others, it was no tool for outside powers. "I am not part of the Turkish geopolitical project," said Mr. Hashemi. He criticized Mr. Maliki's "conspiratorial" mind and said that his frequent visits to Turkey last year were mostly private.
Still there is little disguising the building tensions between Ankara and its Shiite neighbors, including Tehran.
In December, Ankara sought an explanation from Tehran after Hussain Ibrahimi, chief of the Iranian parliament's national-security committee, told an Iranian newspaper that if Iran were to be attacked, its first retaliatory strike would be against the NATO missile defense radar in eastern Turkey.
Earlier, in October, a key aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini told Iran's Mehr news agency that Turkey should radically rethink its policies on Syria, the NATO missile shield and promoting secularism in the Arab world. Otherwise, Ankara would face trouble from its own people and neighbors, he said.