Of all Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey has the most intricate foreign policy toward the beleaguered nation, attempting to balance its concerns about the Kurdish PKK militants in northern Iraq with its support of the attempts of the government in Baghdad to pacify the country.
Turkey’s special envoy to Iraq Murat Ozcelik began a four-day visit to Baghdad on May 12. Besides discussions with Iraqi officials and U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, Ozcelik also met with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and British Ambassador Christopher Prentice. The topics included Iraq’s security situation, the PKK and Turkish-Iraqi relations (Anadolu Ajansi, May 17).
Five days later, as Ozcelik was preparing to return to Ankara, “unidentified gunmen” opened fire on Turkish Police General Directorate of Security Special Operations Unit personnel guarding the legation compound (www.mfa.gov.tr/) Officer Ergun Kilicarslan was shot in the leg three times. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement, noting, “We strongly deplore this attack. We shall be pursuing this matter until all aspects become entirely clear.” After being informed of the incident, Ozcelik, who was at Baghdad Airport preparing to depart, waited for the wounded officer to receive first aid and held the flight so that Kilicarslan could be taken to Ankara for treatment at the Gulhane Military Academy of Medicine (Aksam, May 18).
The assault was the third terrorist attack on diplomatic facilities in Baghdad this month. On May 5 an armed man, reportedly a major in uniform, was shot and killed by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers after attempting to break through a checkpoint leading to the Green Zone’s main entry point. The gunman managed to injure a U.S. and an Iraqi soldier before he was killed (KUNA news agency, May 5).
On May 15 gunmen opened fire on an Iranian embassy vehicle convoy in northern Baghdad. Four Iranian embassy staff members and their Iraqi driver were wounded in the melee. De Mistura condemned the assault as an outrage, remarking, “Attacking foreign diplomats in Iraq aims to discourage normal diplomatic relations between Iraq and the international community but will not succeed, as we have witnessed increased diplomatic activities here in Iraq in the last few months” (UN News Center, May 18).
Turkey, however, is not hiding behind the blast-proof walls and numerous checkpoints of the Green Zone, locating its embassy outside the zone. In a gesture of diplomatic faith, Ozcelik said that Turkey was preparing to open a Consulate General in Basra within the next two months (Anadolu Ajansi, May 17)
Basra remains the site of an ongoing struggle between Madhi Army forces loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Iran and Britain already have consulates there, and both have been hit by violence. Shortly after the U.S. troop surge began a year ago, most of Sadr’s supporters fled southward to Basra.
Violence in Basra swelled last year after British coalition troops on September 3 withdrew their 4,100 soldiers from their encampment near the consulate at the Basra Palace to Basra Airport, eight miles outside the city. As part of the handover arrangement, British troops were confined to their base unless their presence was requested by the Iraqi authorities. On September 23 a car bomb was detonated near the Iranian Consulate in Basra’s central al-Bradhiyah district. While the blast damaged nearby buildings and houses, no one was injured in the attack (Voices of Iraq, September 23, 2007). On December 17 Major-General Graham Binns formally handed over Basra province to the Governor of Basra Mohammed al-Waili, with the Iraqi Army and local police rather than coalition forces becoming responsible for security.
The result was increasing conflict. In February unidentified gunmen fired two RPG-7 shells at the Iranian consulate from a vehicle. Again, there were no casualties, as the missiles missed their target (Aswat al-Iraq, February 26).
On March 25 the Iraqi army launched Operation Saulat al-Fursan (“Charge of the Knights”) to retake Basra from Mahdi Army militias in the first major operation planned and carried out by the Iraqi Army since the 2003 U.S. invasion. After the Iraqis encountered stiff resistance, both the U.S. and British air and artillery forces entered the fray, which ended on March 31 in a ceasefire brokered by Iran.
Turkey’s interests in oil-rich Basra are not solely diplomatic, as it wants to improve its energy ties with Iraq, having already agreed to build an additional natural gas pipeline to carry Iraqi reserves to world markets. A viable presence in Iraq’s fifth largest city would give Turkey a commanding presence in any future disposition of Iraqi energy assets. An added incentive is that Basra sits astride a navigable stretch of the Shatt al-Arab, and Ankara has held discussions with Washington about establishing an industrial zone in the province to allow Turkish investors to sell their products to the United States tax-free (Turkish Daily News, March 21).
Britain is reassessing its position on Basra, as British soldiers operating from a forward base at the Shatt al-Arab Hotel have renewed their presence on Basra’s streets, patrolling with Iraqi forces in “no-go” areas that they were driven from last autumn by Shia militias (The Daily Telegraph, May 20).
While Turkish diplomats arriving in Basra will doubtless be cheered by the sight of Her Majesty’s troops conducting foot patrols, the fact remains that Basra will be a “hardship” post for the foreseeable future, seeming placid only by comparison to Baghdad. If the United States’ assertions are to be believed, Iran is behind much of the mayhem in southern Iraq; if this is so, the Turks will have the immense advantage of formal diplomatic relations with Teheran. But given that Iran’s consulate in Basra has also been repeatedly attacked, perhaps that is not such a plus after all. At present, the only certainty in Iraq is that “diplomatic immunity” is a concept as much under fire as the Green Zone.