Two of Turkey's top officials are set to pay a visit to Baghdad in a bid to defuse a diplomatic standoff with the Iraqi government over the deployment of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced during a meeting with visiting Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani on Dec. 9.
Accordingly, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu will travel to Baghdad on Dec. 10.
“Our presence in Iraq is aimed at providing stability for this region,” Davutoğlu said late on Dec. 9, during a meeting with Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, as seen in a video released by the Prime Ministry Press Office.
“Because we don't want to be neighbors with Daesh,” Davutoğlu said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS), “Arbil needs to be strong for us not to be neighbors with Daesh. We will give all kinds of support to this aim to both Iraq and to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Hosting you [Barzani] at a time when there are discussions like this is very important for us. It is a message for everybody,” Davutoğlu said, recalling that he recently sent a letter to his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi.
In his letter, Davutoğlu said Ankara would never take any step that would damage Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity, while noting Turkey would not deploy troops to the area until Baghdad's concerns were assuaged.
“And tomorrow [Dec. 10], Mr. Feridun [Sinirlioğlu] and Mr. Hakan [Fidan], our MİT undersecretary, will go to Baghdad. In any case, you can be sure that we will always give all kinds support against terror for Iraq and for you,” Davutoğlu told Barzani.
Barzani earlier made an unannounced visit to the MİT's headquarters and held talks with Fidan. Barzani has long-standing ties with Ankara, and there are multiple Turkish military sites in Iraq's Kurdish region.
However, there have been growing strains between Ankara and the central Baghdad government over Turkey's deployment of up to 300 soldiers in Bashiqa close to an area held by IS in northern Iraq. Turkey has described the deployment as a routine rotation to train local Iraqi forces to retake the city of Mosul from IS jihadists.
The Iraqi federal government has told Turkey to withdraw its troops, saying they entered the country illegally without its consent.
Davutoğlu insisted the troops were there to train local Iraqis to fight against IS jihadists as well as to protect Turkey's own military trainers.
“No-one can say that this [troop deployment] is a surprise,” Davutoğlu told foreign reporters in Istanbul before meeting Barzani in Ankara.
“When the threats [to the lightly-armed Turkish trainers] increased, we sent troops to protect the camp. It's not an act of aggression but an act of solidarity,” he clarified.
He said the troop transfer had been halted in the light of Baghdad's angry reaction but insisted those already deployed would stay.
“When we saw the reaction [of the Iraqi government] we stopped the transfer,” he said.
Davutoğlu is expected to visit Baghdad soon with the aim of calming tensions.
On Dec. 6, Baghdad gave Turkey a 48-hour deadline and threatened to appeal to the U.N. Security Council unless the troops were withdrawn.
Turkey said it had halted further deployment to the Bashiqa area but said there would be no pull-out.
“Our presence [near] Mosul will continue as part of the training program,” Erdoğan's spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, told reporters in Ankara.
Kalın said the issue could be resolved through dialogue with Iraq.
“The main issue is to support Iraqis in their fight against Daesh” he said. “It has nothing to do with the violation of a country's sovereign rights.”
Authorities said the Turkish army has trained local Iraqis in the Bashiqa area since March, indicating the troops have not been given any combat mission.
Writing on Twitter this week, Brett McGurk, the special U.S. envoy for the anti-IS coalition, said Washington did not support military deployments inside Iraq “absent the consent of the Iraqi government.”
“This includes deployment of U.S. military personnel, as well as military personnel from any other country” he wrote.
Meanwhile, in a travel warning, Ankara cited increasing threats targeting Turkish companies recently, as well as declarations encouraging violence, abduction and attacks.