Resurgent Turkey Flexes Its Muscles Around Iraq

A Turkey as resurgent as at any time since its Ottoman glory is projecting influence through a turbulent Iraq, from the boomtowns of the north to the oil fields near southernmost Basra, in a show of power that illustrates its growing heft across an Arab world long suspicious of it.

Its ascent here, in an arena contested by the United States and Iran, may prove its greatest success so far, as it emerges from the shadow of its alliance with the West to chart an often assertive and independent foreign policy.

Turkey’s influence is greater in northern Iraq and broader, though not deeper, than Iran’s in the rest of the country. While the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, losing more than 4,400 troops there, Turkey now exerts what may prove a more lasting legacy — so-called soft power, the assertion of influence through culture, education and business.

“This is the trick — we are very much welcome here,” said Ali Riza Ozcoskun, who heads Turkey’s consulate in Basra, one of four diplomatic posts it has in Iraq.

Turkey’s newfound influence here has played out along an axis that runs roughly from Zakho in the north to Basra, by way of the capital, Baghdad. For a country that once deemed the Kurdish region in northern Iraq an existential threat, Turkey has embarked on the beginning of what might be called a beautiful friendship.

In the Iraqi capital, where politics are not for the faint-hearted, it promoted a secular coalition that it helped build, drawing the ire of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, along the way. For Iraq’s abundant oil and gas, it has positioned itself as the country’s gateway to Europe, while helping to satisfy its own growing energy needs.

Just as the Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reoriented politics in Turkey, it is doing so in Iraq, with repercussions for the rest of the region.

While some Turkish officials recoil at the notion of neo-Ottomanism — an orientation of Turkey away from Europe and toward an empire that once included parts of three continents — the country’s process of globalization and attention to the markets of the Middle East is upsetting assumptions that only American power is decisive. Turkey has committed itself here to economic integration, seeing its future in at least an echo of its past.

“No one is trying to overtake Iraq or one part of Iraq,” said Aydin Selcen, who heads the consulate in Erbil, which opened this year. “But we are going to integrate with this country. Roads, railroads, airports, oil and gas pipelines — there will be a free flow of people and goods between the two sides of the border.”

By the border, he meant Zakho and the 26-lane checkpoint of Ibrahim Khalil, where 1,500 trucks pass daily, bringing Turkish building materials, clothes, furniture, food and pretty much everything else that fills shops in northern Iraq.

The economic boom they have helped propel has reverberated across Iraq. Trade between the two countries amounted to about $6 billion in 2010, almost double what it was in 2008, Turkish officials say. They project that, in two or three years, Iraq may be Turkey’s biggest export market.

“This is the very beginning,” said Rushdi Said, the flamboyant Iraqi Kurdish chairman of Adel United, a company involved in everything from mining to sprawling housing projects. “All of the world has started fighting over Iraq. They’re fighting for the money.”

Ambition, in 4 Languages

Mr. Said’s suit, accented by a black-and-white handkerchief in the pocket, shines like his optimism, the get-rich-quick kind. In some ways, he is a reincarnation of an Ottoman merchant, at ease in Kurdish, Turkish, Persian and Arabic. In any of those languages, he boasts of what he plans.

He has thought of contacting Angelina Jolie, “maybe Arnold and Sylvester, too,” to interest them in some of his 11 projects across Iraq to build 100,000 villas and apartments at the cost of a few billion dollars. So far, though, his best partner is the singer Ibrahim Tatlises, the Turkish-born Kurdish superstar, whose portrait adorns Mr. Said’s advertisement for his project the Plain of Paradise.

“The villas are ready!” Mr. Tatlises says in television ads. “Come! Come! Come!”

Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north where Mr. Said lives, has become the nexus of Turkish politics and business, made possible by the sharp edge of military power.

About 15,000 Turks work in Erbil and other parts of the north, and Turkish companies, more than 700 of them, make up two-thirds of all foreign companies in the region. Travel requirements have been lifted, and the consulate in Erbil issues as many as 300 visas a day. A Turkish religious movement operates 19 schools in the region, educating 5,500 students, Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds mingling in a lingua franca of English.

Turkish officials talk about transforming the region into something akin to the American-Mexican border, a frontier as ambiguous as any line on a map is precise. Even some Kurdish officials have embraced the idea, though interpreting the notion differently.

While Turkey sees integration as a way to tap nascent markets in the Middle East, some Kurdish officials have seen it more emotionally, as a way to bind them to Kurdish regions in neighboring countries that no degree of political negotiations could ever achieve.

“The borders between us were not drawn by us,” Kamal Kirkuki, the speaker of the local Kurdish Parliament, said of the frontier with Turkey, Iran and Syria, all with Kurdish minorities, “It’s a de facto border and we have to respect it, but in our hearts we don’t see it. We want to integrate the people without any bureaucracies keeping them apart.”

Kurds represent nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and Turkish governments have long viewed calls for their self-determination as a fundamental threat to the state. The same went for Kurds in Iraq, whose autonomy might provide an inspiration to Turkey’s own minority. Since 2007, those assumptions have undergone a seismic shift.

Over the smoldering reservations of the Turkish military, which has carried out repeated coups against elected governments, Mr. Erdogan has undertaken halting steps to reconcile with Turkey’s own Kurds in what the government has termed “the Kurdish opening.” They have met with mixed success, but the new climate reflects the changes: Turkish diplomats here casually refer to Iraqi Kurdistan — the K-word long being a taboo — and Massoud Barzani, that region’s president, no longer talks about Greater Kurdistan.

Diplomatic Balancing Act

Less publicly, American officials in late 2007 began to support Turkish military action against Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have sought refuge in northern Iraq. Turkey still keeps as many as 1,500 troops here, officials say, and the cooperation has allowed them, as a senior American official put it, “to quite effectively strike” the Kurdish rebels.

Iraqi officials in Erbil and Baghdad have protested, requiring a measure of American diplomacy to soothe their resentment. But at least for now, Kurdish officials have viewed their alliance with Turkey as a greater priority in a region still contested by Iran.

“Kurdistan is not against the interests of Turkey,” Mr. Kirkuki said simply. A surprising feature of Turkey’s success is the image it has managed to project in Iraq. On the road from Erbil to Baghdad, its pop culture is everywhere.

Posters of Turkish television serials — from “Muhannad and Nour” to “Forbidden Love” — sell by the tens of thousands. The action series “Valley of the Wolves” is a sensation, the lead actor lending his name to cafes. His own posters are computer-altered to show him in traditional Kurdish or Arab dress — grist for a graduate school seminar on the adaptability of cultural symbols.

Its political influence in Baghdad is no less widespread. Unlike Iran and the United States, it has cultivated ties with virtually every bloc in the country, though relations with Mr. Maliki have proved difficult at times. (At one point, his officials tried to revoke the Turkish ambassador’s credentials to enter the Green Zone. “A misunderstanding,” Turkish diplomats called it.)

Turkish diplomats stay for two years, unlike the one-year posting for Americans, and over that time, they have managed to reach out to unlikely partners, namely the followers of the populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Most of Mr. Sadr’s bloc of lawmakers traveled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, for training in parliamentary protocol. In October, Turks were the only diplomats to attend a commemoration the Sadrists held at Baghdad University. “It is not a group to be excluded,” one of them said.

Courting the Sadrists, though, is a sideshow to the real prize being sought in the prolonged months of negotiations over a new government.

Turkey strongly backed the fortunes of a coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite politician who enjoys the support of the country’s Sunnis. More than any other country, Iraq’s Arab neighbors included, it is credited with forging the coalition in the first place.

American and Turkish interests did not always line up on the government’s formation, and some diplomats questioned whether American officials were perceived as backing Mr. Maliki too strongly.

“A high-wire act,” said the senior American official, describing Turkish-American relations generally.

Yet those interests are roughly aligned now, and the degree of power Mr. Allawi’s coalition eventually plays in the government will vividly illustrate Turkey’s relative weight in Iraq.

“I’d say the Turks put a lot of effort into it,” the official said, “and they still are.”

Building Connections

In southernmost Iraq, the old Ottoman quarter in faded Basra is crumbling. Its windows are patched with cinder block, though the stench of sewage still seeps in. Across town is the Basra International Fair Ground, built by Turks and opened in June. Three fairs have already been held there, including one organized in November for Iraq’s petroleum industry.

Oil is still king in Iraq, and as much as anything else, underlines Turkey’s interests here. The pipeline from Kirkuk, Iraq, to Ceyhan, Turkey, already carries roughly 25 percent of Iraq’s oil exports.

The Turks have signed on to the ambitious $11 billion Nabucco gas pipeline project, which may bypass Russia and bring Iraqi gas to Europe. Turkish companies have two stakes in oil contracts, and two more in gas projects, potentially worth billions of dollars. In a land of oil, no place has more than Basra.

Turkish ships offshore provide 250 megawatts of electricity a day. Turkish companies have refurbished the Sheraton Hotel in Basra and are helping to build a 65,000-seat stadium. The Turkish national air carrier is planning four flights a week from Istanbul to Basra; only one is offered now, by Iraqi Airways. Vortex, Crazy Dance and other amusement rides in Basraland are Turkish. So are the sweets sold there.

“No one is working here except Turkey,” said Mr. Ozcoskun, the Turkish consul in Basra.

It was a bit of overstatement from the garrulous diplomat, but not by much.

“Basra is virgin,” he said, a phrase Turkish diplomats volunteer about the rest of Iraq, too. “Who comes first, who establishes first, who makes contacts first will make the most profit in the future. I don’t feel any competition right now. Not at all.”

Source: New York Times
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