Turkey, Iraq, UAE, Qatar ink $20B transportation deal during Erdogan visit – Ezgi Akın / AL-MONITOR

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The Turkish president’s visit heralds a new chapter between the two neighbors after more than a decade of turbulent ties.

Al-Monitor, April 23, 2024, by Ezgi Akın

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his first visit to Baghdad in nearly 13 years Monday, when he signed an agreement between Turkey, Iraq, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on a major transport project linking Iraq to Europe.

Erdogan met with Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid and Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani in the Iraqi capital, the first stop of his daylong Iraq visit, which also took him to Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

“I believe that my visit and the agreements that were just signed will mark a new turning point in relations between the two countries,” Erdogan said, speaking at a joint presser with Sudani.

The highlight of the visit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding on the so-called “Development Road Project” between Turkish and Iraqi officials as well as representatives from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Qatar and the Emirates stand out as two potential sponsors of the estimated $20 billion transportation link spanning 1,275 kilometers (792 miles) from the oil-rich southern Iraqi province of Basra to Turkey via road and railway.

During the visit, Iraq and Turkey also signed a Strategic Framework Agreement for Joint Cooperation in a bid to pave the way for further collaboration on several issues, in addition to 24 memoranda of understanding covering various fields including energy, trade and water sharing.

Sudani said at the presser that under the framework deal on sharing water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, a longstanding point of dispute between Ankara and Baghdad, the two countries would implement joint projects including the modernization of Iraqi irrigation systems.

“The agreement will last for 10 years and will ensure the joint and equal management of water resources,” he added. Iraqi authorities have long charged that the dams Turkey built on the rivers are causing a decline in water levels on the Iraqi side, exacerbating the country’s drought problem. Ankara argues that Iraqi authorities need to stop up their country’s irrigation technology for more effective water usage.

Sajad Jiyad, a political analyst based in Baghdad and fellow at the Century Foundation, described the visit as a good start. “The signing ceremony for the project, I think, showed the high-level interests in this project and that all four countries are very keen on getting the project up and running as soon as possible,” he told Al-Monitor.

Erdogan’s visit comes after the Iraqi government, in a surprise move, partly acceded to a longstanding Turkish demand in March by banning the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Headquartered in the northern Iraqi mountains, the outlawed militants have been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since the early 1980s and are considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Security front

Turkey’s ongoing military operation series, dubbed “Claw Lock,” against PKK positions in northern Iraq that began in 2019 has also caused strain between Ankara and Baghdad. Baghdad argues that the Turkish military presence and operations on Iraqi soil violate the country’s sovereignty.

Analysts believe Baghdad banning the PKK reflects the central Iraqi government’s desire to have a greater say in Turkish operations.

Ahead of the visit last week, the Turkish Defense Ministry reaffirmed its resolve to expand military operations in northern Iraq. Ankara is also seeking to establish a joint operation center with Baghdad.

Speaking at the press conference, Erdogan reiterated his country’s request for Iraq to designate the militant group as a terrorist organization. Sudani reiterated that his government would not allow Iraqi soil to be used for attacks on a neighboring country.

The last time Erdogan visited Iraq was in 2011. Bilgay Duman, Iraq studies coordinator at the Ankara-based think tank Center for Middle East Studies, believes the long break between the Turkish president’s visits stemmed from political differences and security disagreements.

“Turkey and Iraq were in a sense supporting different sides in the Syrian civil war,” Duman told Al-Monitor. While Turkey has supported Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Iraqi central government has taken a closer position with the Syrian regime along with its allies Iran and Russia, according to Duman. “This was a result of the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq,” he noted.

But after the elections held in 2021, “the Iraqi central government has begun to seek a more balanced foreign policy, and Turkey stands out as one of the countries that will help it to ensure this balanced policy,” he added.

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