Erdogan’s Visit to Iraq and the Aspirations of Turkmen People

President Erdoğan conducted a comprehensive official visit to Iraq on April 22nd. The visit, being Erdoğan’s first in his capacity as  President of the Republic, offered the potential to turn a new page in the bilateral relationship between Türkiye and Iraq. Erdoğan’s visit is also considered an occasion for the settlement of the disagreements between the Baghdad Government and the Regional Government in Erbil. During the visit, Türkiye and Iraq agreed on 26 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) regarding several areas of cooperation, including water issues and the “Development Road Project,” to find permanent solutions to existing problems. These agreements are expected to have positive consequences for Turkmens in Iraq. The fact that Erdoğan, on his first visit as President, met and talked with representatives of the Turkmen community, an important factor in the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil and an important constituent in the foundation of Iraq, has raised hopes for positive developments on the side of Turkmen people.

Security Perspective
Türkiye has suffered important losses, both humanitarian as well as material, while fighting against terrorism. Therefore, the struggle against terrorism has never lost its primacy as an item on its agenda. The PKK is among the terrorist organisations that Türkiye places the highest priority on in this respect. This terrorist organisation is deployed in Northern Iraq and alongside Türkiye’s border with Iraq, which is the 3rd longest border (378 kilometres) it has with its neighbours. In 2022, the total number of terrorist attacks launched from Iraqi soil was 905. This rose to 1084 in 2023. This situation shows that Iraqi authorities have to take effective and concrete steps. Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution obliges the Iraqi government not to allow any terrorist organisation to take shelter within its borders. As long as Iraq does not meet this obligation, Türkiye shall continue to protect its national security in the context of its right to legitimate self-defence under international law. Within this framework, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) continues its fight against terrorism under the operations named Claw (Pençe).

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, visited Ankara on 21 March 2023. During the press conference, President Erdoğan asked Sudani to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The Iraqi National Security Council declared the PKK a “banned organisation” following the landing in Baghdad of the Turkish delegation for official talks on security issues on 14 March 2024. As TSK initiated a new operation in the north of Iraq, the PKK began to strengthen its presence in new areas outside the Kurdistan region of Iraq, including areas inhabited by a Turkmen majority. Telafer and its surroundings, Kirkuk, and Kifri are the most important areas in this context. It is known that Türkiye supports Iraqi Turkmen. Between September 2022 and March 2023, the Organisation targeted Turkmen politicians, security personnel, and tribal leaders. Some of these people lost their lives as a result of assassinations. After Erdoğan's visit to Baghdad and the declaration of the PKK as a banned organisation, it is expected that the security situation of the Turkmen regions within Iraq could be improved. In parallel, the risks to  the lives of Turkmen people could be eliminated.

Economic Perspective
The second most important item on Erdoğan’s agenda is  the Development Road Project, an important opportunity for economic cooperation between the two countries. Under this project, it is planned to build 1200 kilometres of railway and highway extending from the Persian Gulf to the border between Türkiye and Iraq, passing through the Ovaköy border gate. Mosul is the last point of connection for this project on the Iraqi side. The density of the Turkmen population is high in the Mosul region. It is seen that Telafer, a Turkmen District under the Province of Mosul, is included on the route of the Development Road Project. Tel Afar suffered great losses when the terrorist organisation ISIS attacked Iraq in 2014, It has been neglected in terms of investment and development both before and after 2003. The realisation of the Development Road Project could make a significant contribution to the improvement of the district's infrastructure and superstructure. Most importantly, by increasing  social welfare, it can help the economy of the Turkmen community. It could be stated that these positive developments will be possible with the return of the people of Telafer to their homes who were displaced by the terrorist attacks in 2014, and this may have a positive impact on the political existence of the Turkmen population.

With the implementation of the Development Road Project, the security of the provinces located on the route of the project shall be improved. The provinces of Saladin and Mosul, where Turkmens live, are also under this scope.

Political Perspective
It is expected that Erdoğan’s visit to Iraq will have positive consequences in terms of the Turkmen’s political representation in the country. At the meeting with Prime Minister Sudani, held during Erdoğan’s official visit, the emphasis was on the importance of Turkmens’ achievement of their rightful place in Iraqi politics. Before he departed for Erbil, Erdoğan met with the members of the parliament, the newly elected members of local parliaments, representatives of Turkmen political parties, and thought leaders as one of the founding elements of Iraq. In recent times, there have been rumours that some changes could be made in the cabinet of Prime Minister Sudani. The emphasis that Erdoğan placed on Turkmen could be a factor in allowing them a seat in the cabinet as a result of these changes.

The official talks held by Erdoğan in Erbil should not be overlooked either. The existence of Turks in the administration in Erbil continues. While Turkmens are represented in Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRI) with one minister and five parliamentarians, an Undersecretary has also been appointed in the Presidency of KRI. However, the Iraq Federal Supreme Court (FSC) has cancelled the quota seats in KRI. The cancellation of these seats has dealt a serious blow to the existence of Turkmen in the KRI Parliament. With this decision, the representation level of Turkmen in KRI has been a point of discussion for the next parliamentary elections to be held in the region. Similarly, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has announced that it will not take part in the elections to be held, following the decision taken by the Supreme Court. Thus, another problem has been added to the list of ongoing disagreements between the Baghdad and Erbil governments. It is known that significant efforts were made during President Erdoğan’s visit to overcome the difficulties existing between the two governments. It would not be wrong to assume that the decision by the FSC to cancel the quota seats was on the agenda. The review of this decision could mean that Turkmen people’s representation in KRI could continue at the same level.

From this perspective, President Erdoğan’s visit could be evaluated as having made a positive contribution for Iraqi Turkmen in terms of security, economic, and political matters. Following the announcement of the PKK as a banned organisation, the termination of the PKK’s existence in Telafer, Kirkuk, and Kifri, which administratively belong to Diyala Province but are politically and effectively connected with Sulaymaniyah, is among Turkmen’s main expectations. As a result of the emphasis that Erdoğan placed on Turkmen people during his visit, the case for the better protection of Turkmen regions by the Federal Iraqi Police Force has been strengthened, and the establishment of a special Turkmen force is now more likely. Similarly, it is also possible to expect that the level of representation of the Turkmen community in the Baghdad and Erbil governments could be improved.