Turf War: Iraq and Turkey go head-to-head over Mosul  

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As the battle for Mosul has commenced, so too has a major turf war between Turkey and the Shi’a-led government of Haider Al-Abadi in Baghdad. A day after the Mosul offensive against ISIS commenced, thousands marched in protest on the Turkish embassy in Baghdad and called for their troops to be removed from this important part of northern Iraq. This is because territory and sovereignty still matter to the political dispensation in the Middle East.

The clash centers on Iraqi concerns after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the government of Al-Abadi for its pre-invasion planning strategy which attempted to include the insertion of the mainly Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia into battle planning. Turkey says Prime minister Al-Abadi should not turn Mosul into a new sectarian fault line pitching Sunni and Shi’a against each other which could also leave the door open for the insertion of Shi’a Iranian interests in northern Iraq as well.

Sovereignty in Question

Turkey has positioned its own troops in Iraq and signaled that it will keep them there.

Symbolizing the old Arab adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, Erdogan’s government also allegedly shares interest with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud al-Barzani in seeking to keep Shi’a forces allied to the government of Al-Abadi in Baghdad out of the fight with ISIS to re-take Mosul. They don’t want the PMF in the battle or to have any say in any post-war settlement and territorial re-designation of Mosul and the Ninawa province.

While occupying Northern Iraq, Turkish forces have assisted in the training and command support of local Sunni militia, including the tribal militia loyal to Tarek al-Hashemi and Atheel Al-Nujaifi. In Bashiqa – which Kurdish forces claimed to liberate on October 24 – the Turkish army has been overseeing training camps for local militia who were keen to take part in the inevitable clash to evict ISIS from Mosul. Indeed, on the first day of the new offensive on Mosul and surrounding areas social media posts of pro-Turkish elements were reporting successes against ISIS. This has raised fears in Baghdad of an “Ottoman” revivalist project to subject Mosul and its surrounding territory into a millet of Ankara further threatening the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state and exacerbating fears about Erdogan’s intentions.

Pleasing Both Parties

Washington will have to walk the tightrope on this one.

In a meeting between Erdogan and Putin, relations appeared to be on a friendlier footing.

On the other hand, US military commanders on the ground in Iraq know how important it will be to keep the government of Baghdad and its forces in the battle against ISIS as well as the reconstruction and humanitarian phase that will be absolutely necessary when this latest military offensive is over.

As a fragile state, Iraq’s sovereignty and sectarian simmering tensions can be exploited by outside parties with their own ambitions for power and influence in the Middle East region. Putting sovereignty back on the table at international forums such as the United Nations is as much in the interests of Western states as it is those who are affected by such challenges.