Rockets hit Turkey's embassy in Iraq amid rising acrimony

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2012 

BAGHDAD — A rocket attack on Turkey's embassy in Baghdad this week has highlighted the rapid deterioration in relations between Turkey and Iraq, a development tied to Turkish criticism of the detention of opposition politicians by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

No one has claimed responsibility for the Wednesday attack, in which assailants fired three rockets at the embassy. But the timing of the assault, just days after an acrimonious exchange between Maliki and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raised suspicions that Maliki sympathizers were responsible.

"The attack against the Turkish embassy in Baghdad reflects the government's failure to secure foreign embassies," Maysoon al Damaluji, a spokeswoman for Iraq's Iraqiya movement, a secular political bloc that is a frequent critic of Maliki's policies, said in a statement Thursday. She demanded that the government step up security to make sure similar attacks are prevented.

"We are concerned lest Iraq become an arena for regional conflicts that would affect Iraq's stability and the safety of its people," she said.

Turkish news accounts said three rockets were fired at the embassy and quoted the Turkish ambassador, Yunis Dimirar, as saying one struck an exterior wall but did little damage. It was not known where the other two rockets fell.

Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, and Iraq, which only a month ago saw the last U.S. troops leave after nearly eight years of American occupation, have found themselves on opposite sides of a growing number of issues in recent months.

Turkey has demanded that Iraq crack down on Kurdish rebels who Turkey claims use Iraqi territory to launch attacks inside Turkey. Turkey also is supporting sanctions against Iran, which has drawn increasingly close to Iraq's government, and has called for the ouster of Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, who still enjoys the backing of the Maliki government.

But the source of the most recent tension is Maliki's accusations that Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, Iraq's most senior Sunni Muslim politician and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, orchestrated terrorist attacks by his bodyguards. Maliki is a Shiite Muslim who's often been accused of pressing sectarian claims in his administration. Hashemi is known to be close to Turkey, which is widely believed to have funneled money to Iraqiya, a secular political alliance that enjoys widespread Sunni support, during the most recent election campaign.

Last week, Turkey's Erdogan used a meeting with the speaker of Iraq's parliament, Osama al Nujaifi, to criticize Maliki's charges against Hashemi, who currently has taken refuge in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, out of reach of Maliki-controlled security forces.

"For us, Iraq is like Syria. Any sort of conflict to erupt from there would affect the entire region. We cannot remain indifferent to the developments," Erdogan said. "Those who seek out or do not obstruct a sectarian war, will never be able to recover from such a plague."

The next day, Maliki accusing Turkey of interfering in Iraqi affairs. "Turkey is playing a role that may result in catastrophe and civil war in the region, a war that will harm Turkey itself," he said.

On Monday, Iraq's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Jawad al Doski, summoned the Turkish ambassador to a meeting to convey Baghdad's concern regarding "Turkish officials' statements."

In response, the Iraqi ambassador in Turkey was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry and informed that Turkey had no choice but to be concerned by possibly destabilizing issues on the other side of its border with Iraq.

Turkey recently has taken a more aggressive foreign policy approach throughout the Arab world as Arab Spring revolts have toppled and shaken authoritarian regimes. Last year, Erdogan was the first foreign head of state to visit Libya after the government of Moammar Gadhafi was toppled. He also was greeted by huge crowds in Egypt, where he called for an Egyptian-Turkish partnership.

Such forays are controversial, however, in a region split by Sunni-Shiite suspicions — Turkey's leadership is Sunni — and that once was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, whose collapse after World War I gave rise to the modern Turkish state.

"Turkish officials' recent statements are a blatant illogical interference (in Iraqi internal affairs) that stem from their policy in the region," said Haider al Jorani, a member of Maliki's State of Law coalition. "It is an attempt to put Iraq under its control and revive the Ottoman province system."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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