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Turkey-Iraq Tensions May Complicate Battle Against IS in Mosul

By Rikar Hussein, Kasim Cindemir October 05, 2016

As the operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group approaches, tensions between Iraq and Turkey are escalating over Turkey's possible military involvement in the attack.

The dispute grew more intense Wednesday after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the presence of Turkish troops in the north of the country risked provoking a larger regional confrontation.

Around 1,000 Turkish troops are stationed near Mosul to protect what Ankara calls "Turkish interests," which include training Kurdish and Sunni forces to fight IS. Turkey wants its forces to participate in the looming battle to take Mosul by Iraqi, Kurdish and Arab forces. Baghdad says Turkish troops should leave Iraq.

Tensions escalated when the Turkish parliament voted last week to keep troops in Iraq for another year to "fight terrorist organizations." The Iraqi government issued a protest to the Turkish ambassador Wednesday, following a late-night vote condemning the presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil.

Future tensions expected

Iraq's Abadi warned Turkey that it was risking a regional war by keeping troops inside Iraq, and said he had "warned Ankara more than once against intervening" in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

This dispute will "complicate the situation for months afterwards," said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The problem is, what do they do after Mosul is liberated?" he asked of Turkish troops. "Do they support some factions? Do they give them a lot of money? Do they give them weapons?"

Turkish troops have entered Iraq several times before, albeit mostly with the consent of the Baghdad government.

A "border security and cooperation" treaty signed in 1983 by Turkey and Iraq allowed Turkish troops to enter Iraq multiple times to chase members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish guerrilla movement in Turkey that wants independence.

But when Turkey opened a military base in late 2014 in Bashiqa, 15 kilometers northeast of Mosul, the Iraqi government protested, saying Turkey had not consulted Baghdad for permission.

Tensions simmered for months, but the looming battle for Mosul is raising diplomatic pressures.

"We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his parliament Saturday.

Turkey wants more than to help militarily in Mosul, analysts say. It is also seeking to increase its influence in Mosul, most of whose people are Sunni Muslims, after Islamic State extremists are pushed out, they say.

Turkish 'sphere of influence'

"What they are doing in Mosul is to increase their sphere of influence," said analyst Knights. "Mosul is a major Sunni Arab city with a population of about 1.2 million people [down from twice that size in 2014, before IS moved in]. It has a major significance for Turkey."

Turkey does not want to see Mosul fall under control of Shi'ite Iraqi troops.

"After Mosul will be rescued from [IS], only Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Sunni Kurds should remain there," Erdogan said Sunday in an interview with the Saudi-based television channel Rotana.

Ultimately, analysts say, it may fall to the Obama administration to settle the dispute between Baghdad and Ankara over Turkey's involvement in the battle for Mosul. Washington is an ally of both countries and is helping to craft battle plans to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city.

"Washington would most likely solve this Mosul problem before it gets out of hand," former American diplomat Alan Makovsky, a Turkey expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington, told VOA.

However, Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, told VOA the U.S. "will have a delicate balancing act."

And the U.S. seems to be siding with the Iraqi government.

An American military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian, told Iraqi state TV that Turkey is "not part of the international coalition" fighting against Islamic State in Iraq.

"The Turkish military presence on Iraqi territory isn't there with official Iraqi permission and is illegal," Turkish media quoted him as saying.

VOA's Edward Yeranian in Cairo and Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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