Iraq caught in the middle of Turkey-Iran rivalry

Iraq caught in the middle of Turkey-Iran rivalry

Iraq caught in the middle of Turkey-Iran rivalry
Iraqi riot police guard the Turkish visa office in Baghdad following the shelling of Zakho, Dohuk, July 21, 2022. (AFP)
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The artillery shelling of Zakho, a mountain tourist resort in the Iraqi Kurdistan region of Dohuk, on July 20, which killed or injured dozens of innocent civilians, raised questions about the significance of the timing and the parties responsible.
There are also many questions about the objectives of the attack at this delicate juncture in the Iraqi arena, with tensions already high between various political factions and alliances. Iraqi-Turkish relations are also strained by differences over water and security issues, not to mention an additional layer of volatility from the worsening Turkish-Iranian rivalry in northern Iraq.
The timing of the attack on Dohuk could barely have been worse, coming as it did when the Iraqi arena is mired in a complex and precarious political deadlock involving various Shiite factions and a scandal over a potentially explosive leak. In a leaked recording, Nouri Al-Maliki, the notorious former Iraqi prime minister, secretary-general of the Islamic Dawa Party and head of the State of Law Coalition, is heard remarking on his “good” relations with Qais Khazali, the leader of the controversial pro-Iranian Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militia, which is designated as a terrorist entity by the US. Al-Maliki also confirms that the Fatah Alliance, the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Sayyid Al-Shuhada factions are all affiliated with Iran, among other things. The contents of the recording brought the Shiite factions to the verge of infighting.
The Dohuk attack also took place only a day after the whistleblower who leaked the recording predicted that, if published, Al-Maliki’s supporters would “blow up” the Iraqi arena to distract Iraqis from the contents of the recording. Furthermore, the attack occurred as Turkey was preparing for a new military campaign in northern Syria and just days after a tripartite summit involving Turkey, Russia and Iran, during which Moscow and Tehran attempted to exert pressure on Ankara to dissuade it from the military operation — efforts it vehemently rejected.
The attack also added an unwelcome complexity to Turkish-Iraqi relations, resulting in a new atmosphere of escalatory diplomacy between the two neighbors, which has already had an adverse effect on their trade relations. This quickly became evident from the Iraqi government and people’s rapid and hostile reaction against Turkey. Ankara was immediately accused of involvement in the attack and official Iraqi responses hinted at the possibility of summoning the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad, withdrawing the current Iraqi charge d’affaires from Ankara and suspending measures to appoint a new ambassador there. Iraq also submitted a dossier to the UN Security Council, containing the dates and details of consecutive Turkish attacks against Iraq, with the goal of putting an end to such acts that violate UN norms.
In addition, Iraq rejected Turkey’s denial of involvement in the attack and its allegations accusing the PKK of responsibility, as well as rebuffing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warnings not to fall into what he insisted was a trap. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein announced that his country has recorded more than 22,700 Turkish transgressions against Iraqi territory since 2018, saying that the country has lodged 296 protest notes as a result of such interventions.
From a pragmatic standpoint, considering the ongoing deadlock, Iraq did not have the capacity to take more than the gradual and calculated steps it took, as it wanted to avoid a standoff with Turkey that could easily spiral out of control. In the aftermath of the attack, some Turkish officials made provocative remarks, striking a tone of defiance despite denying involvement. Ankara accorded itself the right to carry out any military operations it deems appropriate in the region to deter any threats to its security, insisting that it should not feel obliged to seek prior approval from the countries where such operations take place, under the guise of protecting its national security. This is a risky strategy that invites greater escalation, further complicating the tensions with Baghdad.
Some Turkish analysts have suggested that the Iraqi government was too hasty in accusing Ankara of involvement in the Dohuk attack, doing so before forming a fact-finding committee to determine the truth. These analysts also stated that the nature of the attack raised many questions about the parties responsible, as well as whether it could have been staged by parties looking to strain relations between Turkey and Iraq, referring to pro-Iranian proxy groups in Iraq.
This followed an offer by Turkey to Baghdad to conduct a joint investigation to identify the perpetrators, with analysts noting the strong motive for pro-Iranian political and military factions to divert the Iraqi public’s attention away from the scandal over the Al-Maliki leak, which included a tirade against the Sadrists. The analysts emphasized that the Dohuk attack, which amounted to a war crime, does not serve Turkey’s interests in any way. They also questioned why Ankara would leave PKK positions that pose a threat to Turkish security unscathed while targeting civilians and children instead.
Iran certainly did its utmost to exploit the Dohuk attack, rushing to condemn it, with pro-Iranian factions in Iraq increasing their hostile rhetoric toward Ankara and calling on the Iraqi government to take stronger measures against Turkey — escalating the existing Turkish-Iranian rivalry in northern Iraq. The same factions also asserted that the Iraqi government needs to play its own role in maintaining Iraqi security.
It should also be noted that the day after the Dohuk attack, a Turkish military base was attacked with two booby-trapped cars. Moreover, the Turkish consulate in northeastern Mosul was targeted by rockets, although thankfully no casualties were reported. These attacks were claimed by armed militias affiliated with Iran, several of which have used drones supplied to them to attack US targets on various occasions.

The pro-Iranian political factions and militia groups are the primary beneficiaries of the Dohuk attack.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Regardless of the specific parties involved in the Dohuk attack, the reactions of the pro-Iranian political factions and militia groups reveal that they are the primary beneficiaries of this incident and of any souring in Turkish-Iraqi relations in general, which could give Tehran greater room for maneuver in the Iraqi arena. This attack also reveals the scope of the growing Turkish-Iranian rivalry in northern Iraq — part of the two regional powers’ jockeying to exploit and secure benefits from vital resources such as oil and gas.
This jockeying comes amid a global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ankara and Tehran are seeking to step into the void created by American military withdrawals. Regardless of the Turkish, Iranian and Russian leaders’ recent meeting in Tehran, Turkey and Iran are vying for regional leadership, with Iraq caught in the middle of their rivalry.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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