During his recent two-day recent visit to Ankara, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, pleased his hosts by condemning the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and inviting Turkish businesses to bid for Iraqi infrastructure projects. But he also defied Turkey’s reluctance to acknowledge the Kurdish political reality in northern Iraq by referring to the region as “Kurdistan” and calling on Ankara to engage directly with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Massoud Barzani.
Talabani arrived in Ankara on March 7, exactly one week after Turkish troops withdrew from northern Iraq following an eight-day incursion against PKK camps in the Zap region close to the Iraqi-Turkish border (see Terrorism Monitor, March 7). In a sign of its continuing unease at what it regards as Iraqi Kurdish support for the PKK, Ankara refused to grant the trip the status of an “official visit,” downgrading it to a “working visit” with Talabani himself classed as a guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gul (see EDM, March 6).
As a result, Talabani was met at Ankara airport by Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, rather than Gul himself, and he received neither a guard of honor nor the 21-gun salute usually granted to visiting heads of state. Nevertheless, Talabani subsequently held meetings not only with Gul but also with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Talabani was accompanied by a large delegation, including the Iraqi ministers of energy, water, security, and finance, all of whom held meetings with their Turkish counterparts.
After visiting the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic, to pay his respects and sign the book of remembrance, Talabani attempted to further ingratiate himself with his hosts by inviting Turkish companies to bid for Iraqi infrastructure projects.
“We want to establish a strategic relationship with Turkey in every field, in oil, the economy, trade, culture and politics,” declared Talabani (Radikal, March 9). He noted that the Iraqi government had allocated $25 billion from the state budget to be spent on investments and invited Turkish companies to bid for contracts.
In 2005 Turkish companies won an estimated $1.5 billion in Iraqi contracts. But tensions over the PKK and continuing Turkish fears that the KRG aims eventually to declare its independence meant that the volume of contracts won by Turkish firms fell to $435 million in 2007. Bilateral trade has also plummeted and the number of Turkish firms active in Iraq declined from 500 to 300 (Turkish Daily News, March 10). In addition to political tensions, Turkish firms operating in Iraq frequently complain about the high levels of corruption and difficulties in obtaining payment, particularly in the KRG-administered north of the country. At a meeting with Turkish businessmen on March 8, Talabani dismissed such concerns.
“We call on Turkish companies to invest in Iraq,” he said. “They have no need to worry about payments” (Radikal, Milliyet, March 9).
However, Talabani subtly warned Turkey that it would have to recognize the Kurdish political reality in northern Iraq. “Iraq is ready to facilitate your investments in every region of the country, including in the south, in Baghdad and in Kurdistan,” he said (Milliyet, Vatan, March 9).
Talabani’s statement came two months after Turkey offered the Iraqi Kurds a different kind of financial incentive when President Gul proffered a tenfold increase in Turkish aid to Iraq if the PKK bases in the north of the country were eradicated (Radikal, Milliyet, January 9).
At a meeting with Turkish journalists on March 8, Talabani vigorously condemned the PKK. He said that the organization had just two choices, either to renounce its armed struggle or to leave Iraq. The Turkish media interpreted his remarks as suggesting that, in the wake of last month’s Turkish incursion, both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad will apply pressure on the PKK to declare a ceasefire (Milliyet, Hurriyet, March 9). However, Talabani also made it clear that Iraqi Kurdish cooperation in eradicating the PKK would come with a political price.
“If you really want to render the PKK in northern Iraq ineffective, then, as a priority, you should address the KRG and its head Barzani,” said Talabani (Milliyet, March 9).
Iraqi Government Spokesman Ali Dabagh attempted to assure Turkey that engaging with the KRG would not be interpreted as recognizing its sovereignty in the north. Unlike many other countries, which have opened consulates in the KRG-administered north of Iraq, Turkey still does not even have a permanent diplomatic presence in the region.
“The KRG is constitutionally part of Iraq,” he said. “Improving the relationship or strengthening cooperation is not the same as recognition. It would be part of a relationship with Baghdad” (Milliyet, March 9).
Talabani attempted to dismiss Turkish suspicions that Barzani is sympathetic towards the PKK.
“Don’t forget that during the 1990s Barzani lost thousands of peshmerga fighting the PKK,” Talabani told Turkish journalists (Milliyet, March 9).
The Turkish journalists were gracious enough not to point that Talabani’s figures were a considerable exaggeration. Nor did they note that, when he fought alongside the Turkish military against the PKK in the mid-1990s, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was engaged in a bitter civil war with Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which was tolerating the activities of the PKK in the territory it controlled.
Nevertheless, on March 10, the Turkish media reported that a Turkish delegation will soon travel to Iraq to meet with Massoud Barzani’s nephew Nerchivan Barzani, the prime minister of the KRG, probably around March 14. However, in a sign of continuing Turkish caution, the meeting will be unofficial and will be held not in the Kurdish north but in Baghdad (NTV, CNNTurk, March 10).