Turkey offers water for Iraqi crackdown on Kurdish rebels

Seeking to expand its role on the Mideast stage, it promised Tuesday to send more water to drought-stricken Iraq, which faces its lowest harvest in a decade.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Turkey, which is seeking an expanded role on the Mideast stage, says it is a forging a new model of cooperation with Iraq.

After talks in Baghdad, Turkey pledged Tuesday to release more water from the Euphrates River to its drought-ravaged neighbor. Iraq, meanwhile, has announced plans to crack down on Kurdish rebels on the Turkish border.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Tuesday after talks in Baghdad that there was a "genuine and sincere desire to solve the water crisis." He said they planned to reactivate a mechanism dealing with water distribution between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, which share the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"The suffering of the farmers in any region of Iraq is the suffering of the Turkish farmers themselves," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on his first official visit since taking the post in May. He said Turkey had increased the amount of water it was releasing from the Euphrates River to Syria and Iraq over the past three months and planned to increase that amount further. He said Turkey would also help with technology that would increase the amount of Iraq's usable water.

Turkey, despite its secular leanings, has been trying to bolster its credentials as a major player in the Muslim world, including mediating between Hamas and Israel and forging relations with Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mr. Davutoglu has called for a new model in Turkey's relations with Iraq and with the region in general. Turkish efforts to improve relations with its own Kurdish minority have coincided with warmer relations with Iraq's regional Kurdish government – including plans to open Turkish consulates in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Now with this transformation of Iraq and the new dynamic for Turkey we think there's a need for reframing our relations," the Turkish foreign minister said at the press conference.

Iraq draws on Euphrates, Tigris

Iraq, where the first civilization began between ancient Mesopotamia's two rivers, relies on water from the Euphrates which flows from Turkey through Syria, and from the Tigris, which comes straight down from Turkey. Turkish hydroelectric dams on the Euphrates have reduced the flow of water in recent years.

Davutoglu told reporters that Turkey had increased the water it was releasing to Syria to roughly 500 cubic meters per second. Under an existing agreement, Syria releases 58 percent of that to Iraq – roughly 290 cubic meters. An Iraqi Water Ministry official says Iraq needs a full 500 cubic meters. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the water flow rate.]

"We are facing a drought, so this is a crucial issue," says Oun Theyab, operations center director at the Iraqi water ministry.

Iraq, which is in its fourth consecutive year of drought, is facing its lowest harvest in a decade this year.

In exchange, Iraq to clamp down on PKK

If water is Iraq's biggest bilateral issue, the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is Turkey's. Mr. Zebari told reporters Iraq was committed to clamping down on attacks by Kurdish rebels from Iraq. He announced plans for a joint cooperation center in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil in which Turkey, Iraq, and the US would share intelligence aimed at stopping PKK attacks on Turkey from Iraqi soil.

Northern Iraq has been governed since 1991 by Iraqi Kurds as a semiautonomous territory but there is little affinity with the PKK, which has attacked soldiers and civilians, particularly as relations improve with Ankara.

Turkey, one of Iraq's biggest trading partners, has been playing a key role in Iraq's economic reconstruction. Mr. Zebari said annual trade between the two has reached $7 billion – a figure they aimed to increase to $20 billion by the end of next year. Turkish minister of state for industry, Zafer Caglayan, said bilateral trade has ballooned by 58 percent from 2008.

An estimated 50,000 Turkish workers are believed to be in Iraq, many of them in the Kurdish-controlled north.

Awadh al-Taee contributed reporting.

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