Disagreement on Syria is one underlying cause of the current diplomatic row between Iraq and Turkey, analysts say, but crucial economic ties are likely to prevent a serious escalation.
Despite improving relations and rising trade between their two countries in recent years, the rhetoric between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become heated in recent weeks as Baghdad grappled with a political crisis that has stoked sectarian tensions.
Turkey and Iraq have summoned each other’s ambassadors to protest unfair criticism on both sides.
“The war of words between Iraq and Turkey and some kind of escalation are largely related (to) what is going on in Syria,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Before the Arab Spring uprisings against dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, Turkey's policy was one of “zero problem” and “good relations with everyone,” Salem said.
But Turkey was forced to choose between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been trying to crush a popular uprising since March 2011, and the Syrian people.
This has caused “trouble with regime allies and friends, which of course include the Maliki government and include Iran, and that is really the reason for the timing of the escalation of words” between Turkey and Iraq, said Salem.
Ankara, which has called for Assad to quit, has been at the forefront of international criticism of the Damascus regime's crackdown on protests and has also become a haven for many Syrian opposition activists.
Turkey and Iraq have traded accusations since Erdogan telephoned Maliki on January 10 to discuss the political crisis engulfing Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew from the country on Dec. 18, pitting the Shiite-led government against the main Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
Iraqi authorities have charged Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi with running a death squad and Maliki, a Shiite, said his Sunni deputy Saleh al-Mutlak should be sacked after the latter said the premier was “worse than Saddam Hussein.”
In response, Hashemi and Mutlak’s Iraqiya bloc has boycotted the cabinet and parliament, and Hashemi is holed up in the autonomous Kurdistan region, which has so far declined to hand him over.
However, Iraqiya announced on Sunday it would end the parliament boycott, somewhat easing the crisis.
Erdogan said on January 24th that “Maliki should know that: if you start a conflict in Iraq in the form of sectarian clashes, it will be impossible for us to remain silent.”
Maliki responded by saying that “all Iraqis are proud of belonging to their country and no other. Erdogan has provoked all Iraqis with his comments, particularly those he believes he is defending.”
Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary history and politics of the Middle East at Qatar University, said there are two reasons for the tension.
“Turkey believes Maliki’s policies are delaying the stabilization of Iraq by marginalizing a part of the society,” the Sunnis, Zweiri said, adding that Iraq's support of Assad's regime is also at odds with Turkey’s position.
Salem added: “I don’t think that Iraq and Turkey will go very much further (as) both countries have many interests together.”
Trade between the two countries amounted to $12 billion in 2011, and Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan has said Ankara wants this to rise to “$20 billion or $30 billion in 2012.”
Some blame a tussle between Iran and Turkey for influence in Iraq for the war of words.
Like Iran, Iraq is ruled by Shiites, while Turkey is largely Sunni. Syria is ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiism.
The Iraq-Turkey crisis is a “struggle for control of Iraq between Iran and Turkey,” said Joseph Bahout, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a Middle East specialist.
“The previous Turkish-Iranian-Syrian condominium fell apart because Syria is in the situation that we know and the departure of the Americans (from Iraq) left a void that the two countries (Turkey and Iran) are trying to fill,” he said.
“But ultimately, we are heading for a great Sunni-Shiite divide that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and passes through Syria. The three countries will become a front line that will see conflict between the two main communal forces (Sunni and Shiite) in the region, and in this context Turkey is obliged” to hold its ground, he said.
Zweiri said Iran’s criticism of Sunni-ruled Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiite-led demonstrations and support for Assad and Maliki are often perceived as being motivated by sect or religion, but its policies are “in fact motivated by the will to have a real role in the Middle East,” he said.