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Ottomans and Persians in Iraq 19 janvier 2012

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) Issue No. 1081, 19-25 January 2012

Salah Nasrawi

A tug-of-war between Turkey and Iran over Iraq has been pitting neo-Ottomanism against neo-Persianism, writes Salah Nasrawi.

Already strained relations between Iraq’s Shia-led government and neighbouring Turkey plunged deeper into crisis recently, amid signs that Iraq’s northern neighbour is becoming more and more enmeshed in Iraq’s sectarian conflicts.

In an unusually blunt criticism of one of the region’s Sunni heavyweights, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki told Turkey recently to stop meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, warning that Ankara’s interference could « bring disaster and civil war to the region. »

Al-Maliki’s tough remarks came two days after his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him he should halt anti-Sunni measures in Iraq, including an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi issued by Al-Maliki.

They also followed suggestions by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier this month that Turkish-Iranian dialogue should take place about the rise of a « Shia Crescent » in the region linking Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria.

« Unfortunately, Turkey is playing a role that could lead to catastrophe or civil war, and Turkey and the region won’t be exempt, » Al-Maliki told the US-owned Al-Hurra television network.

On Monday, the Iraqi deputy foreign minister summoned the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad to lodge a formal complaint about « remarks made by Turkish officials on Iraq’s domestic affairs. »

The Turkish foreign ministry retaliated by summoning the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara, informing him that Al-Maliki’s accusations were « unacceptable. »

According to the Iraqi media, Al-Maliki and Erdogan exchanged sharp words during a telephone conversation last week about the ongoing political crisis in Iraq.

The conversation apparently turned sour when Erdogan blamed Al-Maliki for initiating the crisis by targeting Al-Hashemi and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq, both of whom are Sunni Muslims from the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc.

Al-Hashemi is currently holed up in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, while Al-Mutlaq has been barred from entering his office. The Iraqiya bloc has been boycotting the country’s parliament and cabinet meetings since last month in protest at what it sees as Al-Maliki’s efforts to consolidate his power.

Turkish media reported a telephone call between Erdogan and Al-Maliki on 10 January in which the Turkish leader apparently blamed the Iraqi prime minister for « transforming mistrust into hostility » by purging the Sunni politicians.

Erdogan reportedly warned that the latest tension between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq « will negatively affect democracy and lead to a sectarian civil war. »

The political crisis in Iraq has stoked tensions between the country’s Shias, who dominate the Baghdad government, and the Sunni minority, who complain of being sidelined.

However, it has also drawn attention to a background conflict between Turkey and Iran over connections, strategic influence and economic interests in the country.

Political tensions have been largely to blame for the widespread sectarian violence that has taken place in over recent days in which a series of bomb attacks ripped through Shia neighbourhoods, killing or wounding hundreds.

The orchestrated waves of violence have raised fears of a resurgence of the sectarian fighting that pushed the country to the verge of civil war in 2006-2007.

Turkey has stakes in its southern neighbour, and ever since the 2003 US-led invasion Ankara has been a major regional actor in Iraq, apparently trying to counterbalance Shia Iran’s increasing influence in the country.

Turkey is a traditional protector of the Iraqi Turkomen, an ethnic minority group of Turkish origin that for centuries has braved Arab and Kurdish attempts at domination.

Turkey also mistrusts the Iraqi Kurds and is wary of their growing autonomy, fearing that their efforts for full independence may eventually succeed.

Earlier, Ankara helped convince the leaders of the Iraqiya bloc to join Al-Maliki’s « national partnership government » that ended nine months of political deadlock after inconclusive national elections in March 2010.

Ankara had hoped the deal would prevent the Sunnis’ further marginalisation, making Turkey a power broker in Iraq following the departure of the last US troops from the country last month.

In recent years, Turkey has emerged as one of Iraq’s key economic partners. It is now the country’s second-largest trading partner after Iran, with Turkish exports to Iraq amounting to $12 billion last year, according to Iraqi government figures.

Turkish entrepreneurs have also invested billions of dollars in Iraq in projects that include reconstruction, energy, transportation and education.

However, things are now changing, and relations between Turkey and Iraq’s ruling Shia bloc seem to be at a low ebb. On Monday, the deputy chair of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Ãñmer Ãàelik, lambasted Al-Maliki on Twitter by saying that « Turkey has no problems with Iraq, but Iraq apparently has a serious Al-Maliki problem. »

Some Iraqi Shia leaders have voiced concerns that Turkey’s increasing engagement in Iraq could be a manifestation of a policy of « neo-Ottomanism », a strategy observers say is intended to promote a greater role for Ankara in the Middle East, especially in countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.

A statement earlier this month by Davutoglu, widely seen as the strategist behind the neo-Ottoman policy, could have raised concerns that Turkey is trying to engage Iran in a showdown over Iraq.

Turkish newspapers quoted Davutoglu recently as suggesting that his country and Iran would need to engage in dialogue « to avert sectarian conflicts in the region. »

« The rise of a ‘Shia Crescent’ was seen as a threat years ago, but now it could turn into an opportunity if Turkey and Iran enhance their dialogue, » Davutoglu said, without elaboration.

The idea of a « Shia Crescent » in the region surfaced following the rise of Iraq’s Shias to power after the ouster of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime by the 2003 US-led invasion.

The Crescent forms an identifiable geographical arc that stretches from Iran into Lebanon, where Shia Muslims form either majorities or sizeable minorities of the population.

On 2 January this year, the Turkish newspaper Zaman suggested that Iraq could be partitioned into two « sections », with Sunni Arabs and Kurds being put in one and Shia Arabs in another.

The paper suggested that the Sunni Arab-Kurdish section could be under Turkish influence, while the Shia section could be placed under the influence of Iran.

« Three parts may be divided into two « sections », together with two groups. The Kurds may be considered potential allies of the Sunni Arabs because they too are Sunni, » the paper said.

It is not clear if Zaman’s comments reflected Turkish government policy, but they do go some way towards identifying trends in the country’s policy towards Iraq.

Many in Turkey share Iraqi Sunni Arab concerns that Iran now wields enormous power in Iraq and has become the main regional backer of the Shia-led government.

Some Turks have called the rising Iranian influence in Iraq « neo-Persianism, » alleging that Iran is seeking to establish some sort of guardianship of the region.

In his Monday tweet, Ãàelik accused the Iraqi prime minister of turning his country into a « satellite state based on the rule of one sect, » a clear reference to Iran.

Iranian-Turkish rivalry in Iraq is nothing new. For centuries, Iraqi history was largely determined by conflict between the Ottoman Turks and Shia Iran.

As sectarian tensions rise and Iraq teeters on the brink of chaos, the two old regional powers are once again competing to exert their influence over a country in increasing turmoil.

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