Turkish troops will remain in the Bashiqa military camp in northern Iraq as long as the country sees it essentials stay there, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Wednesday.
Located northeast of Mosul, Turkey has been training Sunni Arab tribal fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga forces for the past year.
Turkey and Iraq have been exchanging harsh words on the Turkish deployment over the past week. Iraq accuses Turkey violating its sovereignty, but Turkey says that Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad originally agreed with the deployment.
"Turkey's presence in Bashiqa is legitimate. We will continue our presence there as long as Turkey is needed there," Kurtulmus told state-run Anadolu Agency.
Tensions between Turkey and Iraq have escalated ahead of a planned offensive by the Iraqi government to retake Mosul, the country’s second most populous city, which has been under DAESH control since June 2014.
The Iraqi parliament last week passed a resolution which described Turkish troops as “occupation forces.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi also warned Turkey of a “regional war” if it continues its military presence in northern Iraq.
In the interview, broadcast live on the state-run TRT Haber channel, Kurtulmus said that Turkey is concerned with the possible participation of the YPG in the operation to push DAESH out of Mosul. That’s one of the main reasons why Turkey has a military presence in northern Iraq, he pointed out.
The YPG - the militant wing of the PYD, which controls parts of northern Syria including areas bordering Iraq - is an affiliate of the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist militant group that seeks to impose its ideology on Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.
Although the PKK is registered as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, the US treats the YPG as a separate group whereas Turkey sees them as one and the same.
Turkey is also wary of the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite groups in the upcoming Mosul operation. Mosul has a Sunni-Arab majority and a Shiite involvement could lead to further destabilisation in Iraq, where Sunni Arabs already feel marginalised by the polarising policies of the Shiite-dominated government.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Iraqi prime minister to "know his limits" in response to demands for a Turkish pullout. "We cannot watch the developments in Iraq from a distance," Erdogan said.