Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hit back at Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi who last week warned Ankara of a “regional war” if Turkish troops do not pull out of a military training camp set up in the country’s north.
The spat between the neighbouring states comes ahead of a planned offensive by the Iraqi government to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which has been under DAESH control since June 2014.
Turkish troops arrived at the Bashiqa camp, 12 kilometres northeast of Mosul, in December 2015 at the request of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to train Sunni Arab and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to fight DAESH. Ankara says that Iraq’s central government in Baghdad originally agreed with the deployment, but later changed its position.
Pointing out that there are 63 other countries that have stationed their troops in Iraq, Erdogan criticised Abadi for calling on Turkey to withdraw its troops.
“We cannot watch the developments in Iraq from a distance,” the Turkish president said in an address to the 9th Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Erdogan also said that Turkey neither has any intention of violating Iraq’s sovereignty, nor does it have any ambition outside of securing its territory and “seeking the well-being of Muslims in the region.”
"Iraq had certain requests from us regarding Bashiqa, and now they are telling us to leave,” Erdogan added before suggesting that “live records” of Baghdad’s request may be broadcast on television channels soon.
As the rift between Ankara and Baghdad grows, Turkey’s presence in Bashiqa continues to enjoy the support of the KRG. Although the KRG is an autonomous entity within Iraq, the Baghdad government is concerned that the involvement of Peshmerga forces in the operation to retake Mosul could result in the ethnically-mixed city coming under Iraqi Kurdish control.
But there is also concern that the involvement of pro-Baghdad Shiite militias in the operation could further destabilise the country, where Sunni Muslims already feel marginalised by the polarising policies of the Shiite-dominated government.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week warned the Baghdad government that the involvement of Shiite forces in the Mosul operation will only increase problems. "The forces we have trained at the Bashiqa camp are Mosul's own people. The participation of these forces is important to the operation's success," Cavusoglu said.
In a report published last week, Human Rights Watch also questioned whether the Popular Mobilization Forces - the pro-Baghdad militia mainly comprising of Shiite fighters - should be involved in the assault because of abuses against Sunnis in previous operations.
“Civilians in Mosul have suffered under ISIS rule for more than two years and will need support if the city is retaken, but risk reprisals instead,” said Lama Fakih, the rights group’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa, referring to DAESH with an alternative acronym.
"The last thing the authorities should allow is for abusive forces to carry out revenge attacks in an atmosphere of impunity," she said.