Semih İDİZ There have been high-level visits to Baghdad before, of course. These have included President Bush, the former and present British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. It would not be going overboard to say, however, that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's one-day visit yesterday, during which he met with all the key players in Iraqi politics, is one of the most important as far as officials in Baghdad are concerned.Iran is doubtless a very important country for Iraq and Ahmedinejad's visit in March did represent a breaking of new ground on more than one level. These two countries after all were at war during the 1980s which cost both of them hundreds of thousands of lives. But Iran today is embroiled in its dispute with the West because of its nuclear ambitions and is a potential target for Israel because of this. Therefore, it is not exactly placed well as a country with which one signs a “strategic cooperation” accord.
In other words, as much as Baghdad needs good relations with Tehran, not the least because of the majority Shiites in Iraq, it is a fact that good ties with Iran would also represent a political liability at this particular juncture. Turkey on the other hand is a country that Iraq needs to develop such ties with, not just for political but also for economic reasons. Given that the Kurds are now a key player in that country, representing the second largest group after the Shiites, this also makes a normalization of relations imperative.In short, both sides have seen over these past five years that there is a cost to the two countries if mutually beneficial ties are not established. Most Iraqi officials, be they Shiite, Kurdish, or Sunni also know full well that Turkey will be their major route to the world in general, and the West in particular, in the future.This becomes doubly important at a time when Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is asking for a pullout timetable from Washington. Put bluntly, Baghdad is aware that the Americans will have to go sooner or later – even if they leave some form of military presence in that country – given their unpopularity among normal Iraqis.Turkey on the other hand will remain there as a neighbor, and ties with Ankara will either complicate matters for Iraq if they are bad or make life easy on many levels if they are good. Iraqi officials also note, of course, Ankara's European Union bid, for all the difficulties it has at the present time and openly declare that this perspective of Turkey's will bring advantages to their country also. Neither are they blind to the growing political presence of Turkey in the region, especially after its bid to reconcile Israel and Syria became public.
Problems to be tackled:
There are, however, serious problems to be tackled, the most important one being the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, presence in northern Iraq. Both Washington and Arbil are cooperating with Ankara on this score now and to the benefit of all sides. The fact that the PKK has started issuing threats to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership appears to prove this.There is also the touchy issue of Kirkuk which is awaiting resolution. But the Iraqi Kurds appear to have come around to accepting, tacitly if not openly, that their real problem vis-a-vis the status of this city is not necessarily with Turkey, despite the statements on this score from Ankara, but with the Arabs in Iraq.Put another way there appears to be a climbing down on this issue by the Kurds as opposed to their maximum position of only a year ago. Turkey, on the other hand, is staying away from any triumphing on this score. The reason is the growing realization in Ankara that were things to go in an undesired direction in terms of the status of this oil-rich city, there is little that Turkey can do about it.All this indicates that the days of a “zero sum game” approach by both sides are over and there is now a search underway to lay the groundwork for better cooperation between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.
The fact that Turkish companies are so prevalent in northern Iraq also highlights this aspect of the relationship that has to be developed further in a way that continues to serve the mutual interest. But Ankara has also learned in the meantime that its ties with Iraq cannot be held hostage to the Kurdish issue. The big picture demands that Turkey also take note of the changing regional balances and in particular the emergence of Shiite political power in Iraq which was facilitated by the U.S. invasion.This does not mean that Turkey is preparing to take sides against this Shiite presence by entering into “Sunni alliances” as some are speculating. But given that its involvement in regional issues is growing, Ankara cannot afford to overlook the Shiite factor, with all that this connotes, as a result of Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions. Turkish officials admit that this factor was neglected initially and say that Ankara is trying to establish bridges with the Shiites of Iraq now, given that they represent the largest community in that country and cannot be brushed aside in any way.
From potential to actual:
The importance of Prime Minister Erdoğan's albeit brief visit to Baghdad becomes more apparent given this backdrop. Turkey is a country that Iraq needs very good relations with for a host of practical reasons. But this is a two-way street and Turkey also needs good ties with Iraq for a host of practical reasons.There can also be no doubt that Washington followed this visit very closely given that it has been encouraging normalized ties between the two countries, and between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds in particular, since this also serves the American interest.In this sense on can say that Prime Minister Erdoğan's visit has laid the groundwork for a potential “win-win” situation all around. This does not mean, however, that one can leave matters to take their own course. All the sides concerned have to still work hard to convert this potential win-win situation to an actual win-win situation.