Although Ankara and Baghdad recently agreed to turn a new page in their troubled relations, recent reports that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have signed a package of landmark deals that will see the Kurdish region's oil and gas exported via pipelines through Turkey have once again strained the ties, dealing a blow to the recent thaw between Ankara and Baghdad Today`s Zaman reported.
Although the Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the claims on Saturday that energy deals have been signed between Ankara and Arbil, reports that the Iraqi central government in Baghdad has barred private Turkish jets from flying to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region dropped onto the agenda like a bombshell.
The claims have come out ahead of an energy conference on Monday that Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is expected to attend in Arbil. A senior Turkish diplomat told Today's Zaman before it went to print that Yildiz's plane had taken off from Ankara but not yet landed in the Iraqi capital.
It was still unclear when this report was written whether Yildiz would still travel to Arbil after his visit to Baghdad. However, a source from the KRG told Today's Zaman that if Yildiz goes to Baghdad, he will definitely attend the conference in Arbil as well. Asked whether Yildiz would discuss the energy deals reportedly inked between Ankara and Arbil while in Arbil for the conference, the source declined to comment on the matter.
In an effort to put ties with Baghdad back on track, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently paid his first visit to Baghdad in four years to repair relations. There, Turkish and Iraqi officials pledged to end the diplomatic tensions plaguing the two neighbors and said that "we have turned a new page in relations."
Soon after these pledges were made, bilateral visits followed and it was said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would visit Turkey soon. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he wants to pay an official visit to Iraq after Maliki's visit, traveling to both Baghdad and Arbil.
However, Baghdad raised its eyebrows after KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters in Ankara following a three hour-long meeting with Erdogan on Wednesday that oil exports from the region to Turkey could start next month.
Observes maintain that if Ankara fails to convince Maliki that it has not signed any deals with Arbil, then it may be difficult to see through the Iraqi prime minister's upcoming visit to Turkey and that it would not only harm the normalization process between Ankara and Baghdad but would also cause further disputes to arise in the coming days.
The Turkish side has refrained from commenting publicly on the deals, saying that discussions of them with both Baghdad and Arbil are continuing.
Ankara said in a statement that during Barzani's visit to Ankara the two agreed on several commercial energy deals in compliance with the Iraqi constitution; however, it added that the deals have not yet been finalized. Ankara also underlined that Turkey would seek to cooperate with Baghdad.
"Our wish and preference is to undertake this matter within a tripartite framework and to bring it to a conclusion that will benefit our mutual interests and welfare," said the statement released by the Foreign Ministry.
Reports say that it is an indication of Baghdad's anger with the KRG for planning to export its oil before it reaches an agreement with Baghdad on the sharing of revenue generated by those exports that it has now barred private Turkish jets from flying to the KRG.
"Baghdad has stopped private planes coming from Turkey as of [Friday]," Talar Mustafa, general director of the airport in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, told Today's Zaman.
"These are not regularly scheduled flights. They are only private planes. The order came from the Ministry of Transportation." Mustafa said airport authorities were not informed of the reasons behind the move.
However, Baghdad denies having made any decision to bar private Turkish jets from traveling to the KRG.
Nasser Bandar, head of Iraq's civil aviation authority, has said that the claims are groundless, adding that Yildiz will fly to Baghdad on a private plane and will not have any trouble. Reports emerged later that special permission has been granted to Yildiz's plane as a workaround to the barred private flights.
Last year, Baghdad denied landing permission to a plane carrying Yildiz to Arbil, saying the plane had not obtained the necessary permits.
Now, a similar possibility has emerged on the eve of the conference.
According to reports, Iraqi and Turkish energy officials are scheduled to meet in Baghdad and Yildiz is scheduled to meet with Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, Hussain al-Shahristani.
Baghdad says any deal with KRG would harm sovereignty of Iraq
Although Baghdad is concerned that Turkey's close ties with the KRG could threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq and could lead to the breakup of the country, Ankara is keen to walk a fine line between Baghdad and Arbil.
While turning over a new leaf in its relations with Baghdad, in contrast to its former policy, Turkey is also trying to maintain economic relations with the KRG. Turkey has offered to mediate the oil dispute between Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi central government.
Shahristani said on Thursday that any energy deal with Arbil would be "an encroachment on the sovereignty of Iraq."
Turkey's economic ties with the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq have not only raised eyebrows in Baghdad but also Washington, which is concerned that bypassing the Iraqi central government could increase the already high tensions between the KRG and the Maliki government in Baghdad. These tensions would then pose a significant risk to the country's stability, in Washington's view.
However, as a growing country, Turkey desperately needs energy, and the KRG appears to be one of the best options for meeting Turkey's energy needs. Turkey says Iraqi Kurdistan's resources will help diversify its energy supply and reduce its ballooning $60 billion annual energy bill.
The US Department of State has reiterated its concerns over the plan for the export of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, saying that no energy deals should be implemented without the approval of the Iraqi central administration.
"Our view has not changed. We don't support oil exports from any part of Iraq without approval of the Iraqi federal government. We continue to urge the federal government of Iraq and Kurdistan Regional Government to reach a constitutional solution, and that has consistently been our position," said US Secretary of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki during a daily press briefing on Wednesday.
The new oil pipeline is expected to link up with an existing pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.