From early this week as reports came out of nearly 150 Turkish military instructors dispatched to northern Iraq, the tension amongst the two countries flared unprecedentedly, even reaching the United Nations Security Council.
The presence of Turkish forces in northern Iraq is nothing new and goes back to before 2003. This plan was legally approved under an agreement between Saddam Hussein and the Turkish government, and as Saddam’s government was overthrown and a new government coming to power in Iraq the plan had remained intact. This agreement provided both countries to attack Kurdish militants that were the common enemies of Baghdad and Ankara inside each other’s borders.
Although Baghdad no longer directly profits from this agreement, the pact was extended under emphasis from Ankara and in return Baghdad time and again received significant military support against ISIS. However, the question is why has this issue gained so much sensitivity from the Iraqi party?
The fact that 150 Turkish military advisors entered northern Iraq started such a fuss that it provided this platform for Iraq to say measures must be taken to “prevent any military force parallel to the Iraqi army”.
The reason why Iran-linked Shiite parties in Iraq and those associated to the Quds Force showed such a response is due to the policies dictated to them by Iranian regime. The Quds Force is fiercely against any foreign military force outside of the Shiite militias forming in Iraq, and will go the limits to prevent such measures. As we have witnessed in al-Anbar Province U.S. forces have trained more than 10,000 tribal forces, yet the Iraqi government – under orders issued by the Iraqi government – is refusing to arm them and not allowing them to enter the war against ISIS. Therefore, the Iranian regime considers a red line for any military entity to be formed outside of the frame work of the Shiite militias, Iraqi army and police that are controlled by the Shiite government in Baghdad.
The forces Turkey dispatched to northern Iraq was missioned to train and equip hundreds of Sunni and tribal volunteers in northern Iraq, all to be led by former Neinawa governor Athil al-Nujaifi, the brother of former Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.
In this regard Turkey sought to cross the Iranian regime’s red line and train and arm a Sunni military force able to retake the city of Mosul, and therefore eliminate Tehran’s Shiite militias from the war against ISIS. Therefore, the Iranian regime and Shiite militias linked to Tehran all lashed back at this issue.
The al-Nujaifi family, supported politically and economically by various Arab countries of the region, enjoys major influence in Sunni areas in northern and western Iraq. However, they have been mostly sidelined from the power spectrum following the fall of Mosul to ISIS. Osama al-Nujaifi, whose term as parliament speaker had finished, was elected as vice president. This post was also revoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in his reforms package. Athil al-Nujaifi, accused of being unable to manage Mosul and surrendering the city to ISIS, was sacked from role as governor in Mosul by the parliament.
Now these two brothers form the first cell of Sunnis under the banner of “National Mobilization” that have risen against the Shiite “Popular Mobilization”, and are actually an effort by Iraq’s Sunni community to not allow their marginalization. This effort enjoys the all-out support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Turkey welcomes its military presence in the Iraqi Kurdistan region and neighboring Sunni provinces in this region, as through these measures the Kurds opposing Turkey will not be allowed any activity in this area, and Turkey will be able to freely repress them.
In fact, the Baghdad government is concerned about the fate of these forces after ISIS is pushed out of Mosul and Neinawa Province. They argue that forces that have no financial or command relations with the central government can be a threat to Iraq’s national unity in the future, and consider this as the groundwork needed to actually divide the country. This very fact has impelled government officials in Baghdad to place all their efforts to prevent the formation of these forces, and they are even willing to endanger their trade and military relations with Turkey, and actually pull Ankara to the UN Security Council.
The result is that the main problem of the Iranian regime, militias and political parties linked to Iran is not the war against ISIS but rather to change the population fabric of Iraq through destroying Sunni cities, killings and crimes against this community.