Iraqis divided over Turkey’s role in Mosul

Sunday 20/11/2016
Iraqi protester standing on picture of Turkish President Erdogan and ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, in Basra

LONDON - Iraqis are divided over the pres­ence of Turkish forces sta­tioned near Mosul and over allowing Ankara to take part in the military offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in their country.

The Iraqi central government is staunchly opposed to any Turk­ish military role in Iraq, with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi branding the move as an “inva­sion” while parliament described Turkey’s troops in Iraq as an “occu­pation power”.

Iraqi state and military offi­cials as well as leaders of the Iran-backed Shia militias in the country have threatened to attack the Turk­ish forces if they do not withdraw from Iraq. Senior Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Qasim al-Tai issued a fat­wa saying that “it is a religious and moral duty to militarily resist the Turkish presence in Iraq”.

Iranian military officers, includ­ing Major-General Qassem Soleim­ani, were reportedly on the ground in Iraq, in addition to Western mili­tary advisers and air cover by the United States, Britain and France — so why stop at Turkey?

Iraq’s official and private media outlets regularly circulate anti- Turkish coverage and many mem­bers of Iraq’s Shia community believe conspiracy theories that suggest Turkey only entered Iraq to support ISIS. There is also a widely held belief in Iraq that the United States and Israel created ISIS to destabilise the region but the ob­jection against foreign military support is loudest against Turkey.

Some have said that Turkish forc­es in the Bashiqa camp are fighting on ISIS’s side, despite the fact that these forces helped the Kurdish peshmerga liberate Bashiqa from ISIS. Others claim that the Turk­ish forces picked the Bashiqa camp to secure an escape route for ISIS to their Syrian de facto capital of Raqqa, despite the route being west of Mosul and Bashiqa is east of the city.

“Every day, Turkey opens its hos­pitals to treat ISIS fighters. It also gives them weapons,” said Fatima al-Bahadili, who heads a non-gov­ernmental organisation in Basra.

Ali al-Rubaie, a presenter on the state-run Al Iraqiya television, said Ankara supports ISIS as part of a strategy by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to ensure the failure of the Iraqi government. “The re­lationship between Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be separated from his relationship with ISIS,” said Rubaie.

Others have expressed concern that Turkey might want to claim Mosul. It once viewed the city as part of its territories following the fall of the Ottoman empire.

There are many Iraqis, mainly from Iraq’s Sunni and Turkmen communities but including some Kurds, who view a strong Turk­ish military role positively. They welcome Turkey’s help in training Arab Sunni tribal fighters — known as the National Mobilisation Forc­es (NMF) — as well as peshmerga fighters in the war against ISIS.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former gov­ernor of Mosul who helped found the Turkish-backed NMF, said many residents of the city fear in­discriminate revenge attacks car­ried out by Shia militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisa­tion Forces (PMF) that may be mo­tivated by sectarian agendas.

Supporters of that view say that instead of relying on the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army or the PMF, all sides should support the NMF or other fighters made up of locals wanting to liberate their areas, the way the Arab Sunni tribes defeated al-Qaeda in Anbar province 2008.

“Most Arab Sunnis want Turkey to come to their rescue although many are too scared to say it for fear of being subjected to sectarian attacks in this tense atmosphere,” said an Iraqi man, originally from Anbar, on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not out of love for Turkey but because Iraq can never be safe for us as long as it’s under Irani­an influence,” he said. “We need someone to strike a balance. Iran isn’t leaving on its own anytime soon. Even the Americans are hap­py with it in Iraq.

“We know that Erdogan only cares about protecting Turkey — not us — but when you’re in a desperate life-or-death situation, you cling to any hope of being pro­tected, whether from the threats of Shia militias in the west of Iraq or even from the peshmerga in Kirkuk,” he added.

There are other Arab Sunnis, especially among the country’s political class, who back the gov­ernment’s position on Turkey but, on this issue, divisions run even among Iraq’s ultra-secular Sunnis: Some would oppose any policy by what they view as Islamist Turkey while others consider their tradi­tional foe, Erdogan, to be the lesser evil when compared to Iran or ISIS.

Iraq’s Kurds are also split over the presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), its president, Masoud Barzani, and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are generally in favour as the KRG has good economic ties with Anka­ra, much to the displeasure of the central government in Baghdad. Against is Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which is backed by Iran.

But there are those in the middle.

“Many Kurds in the Iraqi Kurd­istan region don’t care one way or another about the Turkish pres­ence,” said a Britain-based Kurd, who supports the Kurdish oppo­sition party Gorran (Change), on condition of anonymity. “People are more worried about the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) restricting their political freedoms than the war with ISIS, which is being used to silence dissent,” he added.

Even Iraq’s Turkmen community is divided over Turkey’s military involvement in Iraq, mostly along sectarian lines. The Sunni major­ity are mainly in favour while the Shia minority of the community is against.

“Most Turkmen welcome pro­tection from Turkey, but they are not very vocal about it out of fear of further sectarian backlash” said Nazli Tarzi, a British-Iraqi journal­ist.