US interests in Iraq: Like a good neighbor, Turkey is there
Whether US troops stay in Iraq beyond the end of year or not, the US must foster the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. Ankara is the perfect counter to competing Saudi and Iranian influence.
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US must help cement a Turkey-Iraq partnerhsip
There are also inevitably areas where Turkish and Iraqi interests deviate. It should be important to Washington that two of these key issues not come to set the tone for this critical bilateral relationship. The first relates to Ankara’s highly active diplomacy toward Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.Skip to next paragraph
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This outreach has on occasion aroused the suspicions of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that Turkey intends to act as a “Sunni power” in Iraq. Turkey has acted to address this perception, such as with the symbolic visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq earlier this year, but it is an issue that remains right below the surface.
IN PICTURES: ERDOGAN DIPLOMACY
The second potentially divisive issue for Turkey and Iraq is the sharing of scarce regional water resources in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Turkey’s construction of upstream dams for domestic hydropower and irrigation has been a source of tension with Iraqi governments for decades. With Iraq facing an unprecedented crisis of water scarcity due to a fierce multi-year drought, Baghdad has set a guarantee of its water share in these two great rivers as a condition for the signing of a comprehensive strategic agreement with Turkey.
In addition to civilian cooperation and responding to Iraqi military assistance requests, the US government should now proactively work to bolster Iraqi-Turkish trade, cooperation, and energy ties as a key part of its post-2011 Iraq strategy. Some first steps would be to provide discreet feedback to Ankara when Iraq’s Shiites are aroused by overly energetic Turkish political engagement with Iraq’s Sunni politicians. The US should also nudge Ankara and Baghdad to make progress on potential wedge issues like regional water sharing.
Such steps would require very little in the way of further direct investment of American resources and could have a substantial return by promoting the mutually beneficial relationship between Iraq and Turkey. And that relationship is in the best interest of the US because it could support stability in Iraq and the development of a regional dynamic that is not based on sectarian identity.
Sean Kane is a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and a Truman Security Fellow. He is the author of “The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq.” This piece is written in his personal capacity.