Iraq, Turkey to elevate security, economic ties after Erdogan visit

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said relations with Iraq were entering a new phase after the neighbors agreed to cooperate against Kurdish militants, boost economic ties via a new trade corridor and consider Iraq’s needs for access to scarce water.

Erdogan was in Iraq on a long-awaited visit, the first by a Turkish leader since 2011, following years of strained relations as Ankara ramped up cross-border operations against PKK militants based in mountainous, mainly Kurdish northern Iraq.

“I shared my belief that the PKK’s presence in Iraq will end. We discussed the joint steps we can take against the terrorist organization PKK and its extensions targeting Turkey,” Erdogan said at a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in Baghdad.

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The two countries agreed to a strategic framework agreement overseeing security, trade and energy as well as a 10-year deal on the management of water resources that would take Iraq’s needs into account, al-Sudani said.

Al-Sudani said the two countries would cooperate to bolster border security and act against non-state armed groups that could be working with terrorist organizations. He did not mention the PKK specifically.

An Iraqi government spokesperson said PKK members were welcome in Iraq so long as they did not engage in political activism or carry weapons. He did not elaborate.

The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and is designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies. Turkey has conducted a series of cross-border operations against the group in northern Iraq since 2019.

Ankara plans a new swoop on the militants this spring and has sought Iraqi cooperation, in the form of a joint operations room, as well as recognition by Baghdad of the PKK threat.

“Iraq must eradicate all sorts of terror,” the Turkish presidency said in a statement after Erdogan held talks with Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, the most senior Kurdish official in Iraq.

Rashid said Baghdad backed joint work to fight terrorism and was against its territory being used to attack any neighbors, But Rashid opposed any attacks on its soil.

Iraq has in recent months tried to assuage Turkey’s concerns about the PKK while pursuing its own agenda focused on growing economic ties and increasing access to scarce water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that originate in Turkey, amid growing drought at home.

Development road

Iraq and Turkey signed more than 20 MOUs during Erdogan’s one-day visit on everything from cultural and agricultural cooperation to education and health, a statement from al-Sudani’s office said.

Erdogan and al-Sudani also oversaw the signing of a four-way memorandum of understanding between Turkey, Iraq, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for joint cooperation on Iraq’s $17 billion Development Road project, with Qatari and Emirati ministers in attendance.

Launched last year, the 1,200-km (745-mile) road and rail project aims to turn Iraq into a transit hub, connecting Asia and Europe with a link between Iraq’s Grand Faw Port in the oil-rich south and Turkey in the north.

Turkey’s bilateral trade with Iraq was worth $19.9 billion in 2023, down from $24.2 billion in 2022, official Turkish data showed. In the first three months of 2024, Turkish exports to Iraq rose by 24.5 percent, while imports fell by 46.2 percent.

After meetings in Baghdad, Erdogan was set to travel to Erbil, the provincial capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, for talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials.

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