Turkey transfers forces north of controversial Iraqi base | News | DW | 14.12.2015
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Turkey transfers forces north of controversial Iraqi base

Turkey has transferred some of its military forces from a camp in Bashiqa further north in Iraq amid a diplomatic row with Baghdad. The dispute has much to do with internal Iraqi politics.

A Turkish military convoy of roughly a dozen vehicles, including tanks, has been moved to northern Iraq as part of a "reorganization" of forces, Turkish state media Anadolu Agency reported on Monday, citing unnamed military officials.

It was not clear if the convoy had moved to within the official borders of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, with which Turkey has good relations, or are returning to Turkey.

Turkey has had a few hundred troops based near Mosul in the Nineveh province since last year as part of what it said was an international training mission. However, a diplomatic row erupted earlier this month when it announced it had increased the number of troops, including tanks, ostensibly for force protection.

Iraqi Prime Minister's Haider al-Abadi has called for the withdrawal of the training mission and issued hollow threats to use force to dislodge Turkish forces. His calls have been echoed by Shia politicians and Iran-backed militias, as well as Iraq's top Shia cleric.

Following Baghdad's protests, Turkey said it would stop new deployments but would not pull its troops out.

Internal politics

Baghdad's opposition to the Turkish presence has much to do with the internal politics of Iraq and Turkey's intentions, real or perceived. Other countries, ranging from Germany to the United States, have training missions in Iraq with Baghdad's approval.

Turkey has said the training mission is ostensibly to back Sunni Arab forces in any future advance on Mosul, but Baghdad sees different motives.

The Turkish mission is largely training Sunni Arab forces loyal to Atheel Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh, and his brother Osama, a former Iraqi vice president. Under the Nujaifis' watch, Mosul fell to the "Islamic State" and support for the brothers dwindled. Some in Baghdad accuse Atheel's policies of leading to the takeover of Mosul by the "Islamic State."

Turkey has allied with the Nujaifis since around 2010, a policy that has fomented concern in Baghdad that Ankara is following a sectarian policy in Iraq.

The Nujaifi brothers are rivals of al-Abadi, who is under pressure from Shia parties and Iran-backed militias. They have also pushed for federalization in Iraq, including the creation of a Sunni Arab region along lines similar to the Kurds.

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The Kurdish question

At issue is also the present and future borders of the Kurdistan Region, which have expanded significantly beyond its three official provinces in the north to include large swaths of territory - including oil-rich Kirkuk - further south as Kurdish forces battled the "Islamic State." Baghdad is outraged Turkish troops are in Nineveh, an area controlled by the Kurds, but officially not a part of the Kurdish region.

The Kurd's territorial expansion adds fuel to the long simmering disputes between the Kurdistan Region and a weak Baghdad over oil revenues, power sharing and disputed territories.

Adding to the complexity, Turkey has close ties to Kurdistan's President Masud Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is a rival to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting Turkey. The PKK's Syria affiliate has carved out an automous zone along the border with Turkey and is one of the best fighting groups against the "Islamic State."

The Turkish presence, therefore, is viewed as a means to boost Ankara's military leverage over the PKK, which has encroached on KDP territory in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly around Sinjar.

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