May 1, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 830

Turkish and Iraqi Leaders at Loggerheads

May 1, 2012 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 830


Upon taking over as foreign minister of Turkey in May 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu declared that his country's foreign policy was driven by a "zero-conflict" strategy. This strategy has proven to be a mere gleam on the horizon. Turkey finds itself in conflict with Israel over the May 2010 interception of the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara; with Syria over Assad's violent suppression of his rebelling population; with Iran in the struggle for influence in the Middle East and its meddling in Iraq's affairs; and most recently with the Iraqi government over its perceived anti-Sunni sectarian policies. Writing in the London daily Al-Hayat, Lebanese commentator George Sam'an noted that after three years of successive failures of Davutoglu's "zero-conflict" policy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resorting to the language of threat in lieu of diplomacy.[1]

In this report, we will review the nature and underlying causes of the conflict between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Turkish-Iraqi Leaders Exchange Verbal Blasts

On April 19, 2012, Turkey gave a presidential welcome to Masood Barazani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, who arrived in Istanbul after visiting the U.S. and a number of European countries. In Turkey, Barazani was accorded the status of a head of state and treated as a key player in the wake of the late 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.[2]

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan receiving KRG President Barazani in Istanbul, April 19, 2012

In a highly critical speech delivered over Kurdistan TV on March 20, 2012, on the eve of Nawroz, the Kurdish New Year, Barazani said: "Iraq is being driven toward the abyss, and a small group of people is dragging Iraq into a dictatorship." Barazani accused the central government in Baghdad of seizing power, which he denounced as "ideological terrorism," and characterized the Iraqi leaders as "a failure." He further threatened that if problems persisted, he would call on his people to make "the final decision," hinting at the declaration of an independent Kurdistan.[3]

In addition to his very public meeting with Erdogan, Barazani was also received by the country's president and foreign minister. The pomp and circumstance accorded Barazani by his Turkish hosts was particularly significant because he has become one of the most ardent critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Adding insult to injury, Turkey also received Iraqi Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni politician in Iraq, who has been accused by Al-Maliki's government of involvement in acts of terrorism. An arrest warrant was issued against him to stand trial in Baghdad, but he was able to seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.[4]

Erdogan Accuses Al-Maliki of Fomenting Sectarian Conflict

With Barazani at his side, following their meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan declared at a press conference that the developments in Iraq do not augur well, and went on to criticize the current prime minister's attitude towards his partners in the coalition. He accused Al-Maliki of "fomenting sectarianism among the Shi'a, the Sunnis and the Kurds in Iraq" through his conduct with his partners in the coalition government. He added that Al-Maliki's "self-centered style" raises grave concerns among Iraqi groups (clearly the reference was to the Sunnis and to the Kurds, who are also primarily Sunnis but not Arabs).[5]

Erdogan's statements came in parallel to similar criticism of Al-Maliki by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.[6] These two countries, and, indeed, the rest of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have established what appears to be a political alliance aimed at stemming the Shi'ite tide emanating from Iran, with key followers in Iraq, Lebanon (Hizbullah) and Syria – commonly referred to as the Shi'ite Crescent.

Al-Maliki Responds

In response to Erdogan's criticism, Al-Maliki said that Turkey was turning into "a hostile state" in the region. He accused Turkey of seeking to impose its "hegemony" over the area, and characterized the Turkish leader's statements as a violation of the basic rules of discourse between states.[7] Baghdad has often criticized Turkey for interference in its affairs. However, the events in Syria intensified the disagreement between the two countries because of Turkey's support for the anti-Assad revolt, while Iraq, in line with Iran, has supported the Syrian regime. Iraq sought to remind Erdogan that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy far more political rights than the large Kurdish minority in Turkey.

In addition, on April 23, 2012, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Younis Demerer for a meeting with its under-secretary, Labeed Abbawi, who expressed to him Iraq's displeasure over Erdogan's statements and called on the Turkish government to cease issuing statements that affect Iraq's sovereignty and internal affairs.[8]

Upon returning from Qatar, Erdogan dismissed Al-Maliki's claim that Turkey was meddling in Iraqi affairs, adding: "If we respond to Mr. Maliki, we give him the opportunity to show off… There is no need to encourage him to seek attention."[9]

Al-Maliki Threatens To Play the Economic Card

Iraq is second only to Germany in volume of trade with Turkey; it reached $12 billion last year, although half of this trade was with the Kurdish region.[10] The economic commentator in the government daily Al-Sabah, Mohammad 'Abd Al-Jabbar Al-Shabut, suggested that Turkey has failed to link political and economic interests in its conduct toward Iraq. The hostile statements by Erdogan, Al-Shabut writes, "do not encourage the development of economic relations between the two countries, and undermine the positive growth in political relations. Indeed, they imbue these relations with doubts and fears that could lead, in the long term, to diminishing bilateral relations between the two countries in various areas, including the fields of investment and trade relations."

He warned that Turkish companies should be wary of the damage that could be done to their interests in Iraq, and should apply pressure on their government to be more concerned with these interests.[11] The commentator, however, failed to point out the fact that most of the 4,000 Turkish companies in Iraq operate in the Kurdish region, out of harm's way of the Turkish-Iraqi conflict, as long the Kurdish Regional Government follows its own path economically and politically. In addition, Turkey has its own economic card in having its hand on the spigot to the water Iraq desperately needs.

Underlying Causes of the Erdogan-Al-Maliki Spat

The war of words between Erdogan and Al-Maliki focused narrowly on the sectarian underpinnings of the Shi'ite-ruled government of Iraq. In reality, the rising tension between the two leaders transcends the sectarian issue into broader political and strategic issues that can be summarized as follows:

a. Al-Maliki has dramatically changed his position vis-à-vis the revolt in Syria. Courting the members of the Arab League to attend the Arab summit held in Baghdad at the end of March, Al-Maliki declared that he would fall in line with the Arab League resolutions pertaining to Syria. A few days after the summit meeting, Al-Maliki spoke out in favor of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, and has since has largely swallowed the Iranian position on Syria hook, line and sinker. He has said that there is no justification for ousting Assad, who should remain in power. Turkey, like most of the Gulf countries, felt betrayed, particularly after Iran demanded that the next round of Tehran's nuclear talks with the 5+1 be moved from Istanbul to Baghdad.

b. Turkey viewed with trepidation the attempt by Al-Maliki to bring Iraqi Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi, one of Turkey's most solid allies and a major Sunni figure, to trial for alleged terrorist activities.[12] Erdogan warmly received Al-Hashemi in Turkey, where he plans to stay before returning to Kurdistan.

c. Earlier, Al-Maliki targeted another prominent Sunni politician, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak, for calling him a dictator. In fact, a key member of Al-Maliki's Shi'ite coalition, Muqtada Al-Sadr, has used the same term to characterize the prime minister's conduct, accusing him of concentrating too much power in his own hands while marginalizing the non-Shi'ite elements in the coalition government.[13] It should be noted that with the escalating criticism of his partners, Al-Maliki visited Tehran to seek the support of the Iranian regime as he struggles with some of his Shi'ite partners, particularly Muqtada Al-Sadr.[14]

d. The growing intimacy between Turkey and Barazani threatens the integrity of Iraq. There are two reasons for this intimacy: Turkey's expectation that Barazani may use his influence in the Syrian Kurdish community to play an active role in the revolt against Assad; and the additional expectation that Barazani could help curtail the activities of the PKK on Iraqi Kurdish soil. By contrast, the Kurds consider Turkish support essential for the creation of an independent Kurdish state, which remains the hope of the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds.

Indeed, no less senior a figure than Kosart Rasul, deputy president of KRG, has declared that Iraq will be divided into three regions: Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish. He called for the establishment of a modern Kurdish army numbering 60,000 and equipped with modern weaponry to defend the Kurdish region and the future state of Kurdistan.[15] Rasul is a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is led by Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.

e. The growing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs at all levels. In his meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly expressed his consternation to his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi over Iran's meddling in Iraqi affairs. Davutoglu told him that while Turkey does not wish to interfere in its neighbor's internal affairs, "when the crises and the problems of the neighbors spill over into Turkey, we cannot remain a bystander."


The ongoing clashes between the Iraqi and Turkish leaders reflect Turkey and Iran's conflicting aspirations for dominance in the Middle East. Apart from its political dimension, the conflict also has a sectarian dimension. It is a struggle between the two leading branches of Islam – Sunni and Shi'te – that some observers see as a continuation of the historical conflict between the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) and the Safavid Empire (1501-1722). The Arab world remains suspicious of the designs of the successors of these two empires.

It is significant to note, however, that so far, Turkey has refrained from using the water card – which, if played, could bring enormous devastation to Iraqi agriculture.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Hayat, April 23, 2012.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, April 20, 2012.

[3] Al-Hayat, March 22, 2012.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.779, "In Iraq, Sectarian Tensions in Government Threaten Maliki Coalition," December 27, 2011, In Iraq, Sectarian Tensions in Government Threaten Maliki Coalition.

[5], April 21, 2012.

[6], April 21, 2012.

[8] Al-Sabah, April 23, 2012.

[9], April 22, 2012.

[10], April 22, 2012.

[11] Al-Sabaah, April 22, 2012.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, April 25, 2012.

[13], April 26, 2012.

[14] Al-Hayat, April 24, 2012.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 19, 2011.

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