Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, marks his first visit to Turkey since 2014. Tensions over Turkey's troop deployment in the Iraqi town of Bashiqa have been set aside. Top of their agenda is the KRG independence referendum.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (left) and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi hold talks in Baghdad, Jan 7, 2017.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (left) and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi hold talks in Baghdad, Jan 7, 2017. ( AFP )

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi will meet Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim on Wednesday in an official visit to Ankara, the first in three years.

Yildirim and Abadi will discuss possible common steps against the KRG which recently held a non-binding independence referendum, despite strong opposition by the Iraqi central government and neighbouring states, Iran and Turkey.

KRG’s referendum: an opportunity to improve relations

Abadi came to power several months after Daesh took control of Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, in June 2014. 

Ankara and Baghdad were at odds before Abadi. Upon becoming Prime Minister, he paid a visit to Ankara on December 2014 in a bid to normalise the relations and strengthen economic and political ties. In Ankara, Abadi suggested Turkish troops train Iraqi forces in their fight against Daesh.

Later, Turkey sent its troops to a military camp in the northern Iraqi town of Bashiqa near Mosul at the invitation of Baghdad. Turkish military officials started training Peshmerga and local Arab forces.

Ties between Turkey and the central Iraqi government remained strained due to disagreement over the Turkish troops deployment, since Iraq's central government in Baghdad later claimed the deployment as a violation of its sovereignty.

During the crisis which lasted for a year and a half, officials from both sides exchanged harsh words

Officials met several times to resolve the crisis, but Baghdad kept asking the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Bashika as the first step for any further cooperation.

However, KRG’s non-binding independence referendum in late September became a priority and the two sides approached each other with the common interest to protect Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi central government have warned the KRG of serious consequences if it proceeded with the independence referendum.

The Iraqi government immediately suspended all flights to and from the KRG-controlled airports. 

Turkey and Iran followed Iraq by taking the similar steps, with Tehran going further and closing its borders with the KRG. 

Ankara and Baghdad extended their cooperation following the independence vote by the KRG, even holding joint military drills despite the Turkish troops’ presence in Bashiqa.

The central Iraqi government also showed its support for Turkey's concerns over the PKK presence in Kirkuk. 

Iraqi officials accused the KRG of bringing the PKK in Kirkuk after taking control of the area in 2014, and said it was a declaration of war. PKK is designated as a terror organisation by Turkey, EU and the US. It had been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years leaving thousands dead, including civilians. 

On October 16 the Iraqi army began an operation to take back control of Kirkuk

All neighbouring countries in the region and global powers supported the Iraqi central government in its objection to the referendum - except Israel, the only country in the region backing an independent Kurdish state.

Abadi's visit  to Ankara comes against the backdrop of common strategic and political goals offering the prospect strengthened cooperation.

Abadi’s visit on Wednesday comes only a couple of days after he met Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al Sisi in Cairo, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud in Riyadh, and finally the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Baghdad. They have all declared their support for the central government and the territorial integrity of Iraq.

The two leaders will also discuss economic ties, with Turkey being Iraq’s largest trading partner, there is additional room for deepening mutual economic cooperation. 

In 2013, Turkey’s exports to Iraq peaked at $11.9 billion, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK). However, due to the volatile security situation in Iraq, exports gradually declined to around $8 billion in 2016. 

The trade is mostly conducted via the Habur Gate, Turkey's only border crossing with Iraq, controlled by the KRG on the other side of the border.

After the non-binding independence referendum the Iraqi central government asked the KRG to hand control over the border crossings to Baghdad. While the KRG has not yet complied with Baghdad's request and the crossing remains open to trade, it's now happening under additional scrutiny.

Turkish PM Binali Yildirim said Turkish and Iraqi officials are considering a new border crossing to connect the two states directly to each other, excluding KRG control.