Top officials on visit to Baghdad after row over Mosul deployment

National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu will visit Baghdad on Thursday, according to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who spoke after a meeting with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in Ankara on Wednesday.

Barzani met with Turkish leaders in Ankara to discuss the recent dispute between Turkey and Iraq and cooperation against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that still holds sway over Mosul before an anticipated Iraqi offensive to dislodge ISIL elements from the city.

Turkey sought to soothe the concerns of the central Iraqi government after it threatened to take action at the UN unless Turkish troops are withdrawn immediately. On Sunday, the Iraqi government issued a 48-hour ultimatum and demanded an immediate pullout of Turkish forces, saying the deployment took place without the knowledge and consent of Baghdad.

Turkish officials, however, said the forces were sent there at the request of Iraqi leaders. Iraqi officials later showed signs of easing tension, with Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Mohamed Alhakim saying talks with Turkey “are going extremely well.”

Before his visit to Ankara, Barzani also downplayed the nature of Turkey’s dispatch of a contingent of forces backed by armored vehicles, tanks and artillery to northern Iraq. The Kurdish leader said the issue was between the central government in Baghdad and Ankara, but did not show any reaction or unwelcoming sign against the presence of Turkish forces.

During a press conference along with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Arbil on Tuesday, Barzani told reporters Ankara and Baghdad have an existing agreement over troop deployment to train armed forces there as part of the mission to recapture Mosul from ISIL.

While in Ankara, Barzani first visited MİT headquarters. He then met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Rivalries between Baghdad and Ankara over Turkish troops entering Iraq should be resolved on the negotiating table because “there is a misunderstanding between both countries and we will work to ease the situation,” Barzani was quoted as saying by the Arbil-based Rudaw.

“The Kurdistan region has friendly relations with Turkey, Iran and other countries,” Barzani said after the meeting with Davutoglu, according to Rudaw. “We will not let the world turn Kurdistan into a battlefield for their rivalries.”

Davutoglu expressed commitment to the Kurdish cause against ISIL and vowed to lend the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) any support available in the fight against the radical group during his meeting with Barzani.

The Turkish prime minister placed importance on timing of Barzani’s visit, which came after the row broke out over the deployment of Turkish troops.

“Our presence in Iraq is ensure the stability of the region. To avoid being a neighbor with Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIL], Arbil needs to be stronger,” Davutoglu said. “We will continue to support the fight against terrorism in Iraq.”

“MİT Undersecretary Fidan and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Sinirlioglu will head to Iraq tomorrow [on Thursday],” he added.

Turkey and the KRG, of which Barzani is president, enjoy cordial relations and cooperate significantly in many areas ranging from security to energy.

One further sign of close relations was the KRG flag placed alongside the Turkish and Iraqi flags during Barzani’s meeting with Davutoglu. It reveals a significant change in Turkish attitude toward the Kurdistan region as Ankara had strongly opposed any Kurdish move for a more independent stance away from Baghdad, fearing that a strong autonomous political structure in northern Iraq may foment separatist tendencies among its own Kurdish constituency.

Putting aside such concerns, Ankara somehow cultivated strong economic ties from the 1990s to date, culminating in a state where both sides currently see eye-to-eye on many issues. That pattern took firm shape since the mid-2000s.

Previously, Ankara’s oil agreement with Arbil, in defiance of Baghdad’s warnings and strong objection, had become a source of bitter friction and dispute between the Turkish and Iraqi governments.

Iraq accused Turkey of violating the Iraqi constitution and striking separate deals with the Kurdish region on energy without the approval or consent of the central government in Baghdad. Ankara denies such charges.

Turkish troops have been providing training to local Sunni and Kurdish peshmerga forces near Mosul in the fight against ISIL since last year.