Iraq gives Turkey deadline to withdraw troops as tensions worsen

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Ankara’s ties to Iraq deteriorated significantly on Monday as Baghdad demanded the withdrawal of Turkish troops from its territory by late Tuesday and the Iraqi prime minister stepped up his rhetoric by arguing that Islamic State oil flows through Turkey.

Turkey sent forces to the Bashiqa region of northern Iraq last week, saying this was a routine rotation of soldiers engaged in training missions known to the Iraqi government. However, the government in Baghdad insists this was done without its permission.

The dispute is seen as a further blow to Ankara, coming amid worsening tensions with Russia in Syria, after the downing of a Russian jet last month along the Turkish-Syrian border.

“We consider this a violation of the sovereignty of Iraq, and these forces must withdraw immediately,” Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said in a statement after meeting with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The top German diplomat urged a de-escalation, saying the “region cannot handle another conflict, including one between Turkey and Iraq.” US officials have also called for calm, trying to focus all actors in the region on fighting Islamic State.

Al-Abadi, who has threatened to take the matter up at the United Nations, insisted Turkish troops were present “without the knowledge or consent of the Iraqi government and we challenge Turkey to present any evidence that shows our knowledge or our consent.”

A Turkish government official said the troops were in Iraq as part of a training mission for Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters and the programme has the consent of the Iraqi Defence Ministry.

The programme is “part and parcel of the efforts against Daesh,” the official said, using an acronym for Islamic State, adding that Ankara “expects” the troops to remain in Iraq.

Discussions with the government were ongoing, the official said, noting that less than 1,000 Turkish soldiers were present in the neighbouring country. The training programme is about two years old, he said.

Turkey insists the 25 tanks which accompanied its troop movements were part of the programme, which also includes measures for the protection of its forces.

The Iraqi premier is facing pressure from Shiite militias angry over foreign troop deployments in the country.

The tensions were raised this week after US Republican leaders called for Washington to send more soldiers and this was followed by the Turkish troop movement near Mosul, in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi city of Mosul was overrun by Islamic State last year in a major victory for the extremist group that has seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Retaking the city remains an objective of the US and Iraqi governments.

Hadi al-Amiri, a key leader of Shiite militias who are allied with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, was quoted Monday by Sharq al-Awsat newspaper as saying he would kidnap Turkish citizens in Iraq if Ankara did not reverse its troop movement.

Regional dynamics are also at play here, as the militias and the Baghdad government are supported by Iran, which has its own issues with Turkey over Syria, where the two governments are at odds.

Iran, like Russia, backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey backs rebel groups fighting the government, mostly comprised of Sunnis. Tehran’s ambassador in Iraq met with al-Abadi on Sunday.

Iraq’s accusation of Turkey being involved in the Islamic State oil trade comes on the heels of Russia directly accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of buying and selling oil from the extremist group.

The Turkish official says Russia is now involved in a “smear campaign” against the country, rejecting all the accusations and insisting the army has stepped up efforts to stop smuggling from Islamic State-held territory.

Last month, Turkey downed a Russian jet which was part of Moscow’s operations in Syria to bolster al-Assad’s forces, setting off the rapid decline in relations.

Ankara said the plane crossed into its territory, though Russia denies this and has since slapped sanctions on Turkey. The Turkish government has been trying to calm tensions but Russia is demanding a formal apology.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written a letter to al-Abadi trying to calm tensions, saying further troops deployments would be delayed “until the sensitivities of the Iraqi government are resolved,” the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

According to reports in the Turkish media, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani will visit Ankara on Wednesday.

Turkey is a supporter of the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq, despite tensions with its own Kurdish minority.

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