Ongoing tension between Turkey and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gained a new dimension last week after Interpol issued a "red notice" for Tariq al-Hashemi, the Iraqi vice president who has been accused of running a terrorist death squad in his country.
Turkey, which has been hosting the fugitive vice president since April, said it would not extradite its "guest" to Baghdad. Turkey views the case against Hashemi, who is also said to be undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, as a politically motivated move against the country's most prominent Sunni Arab politician.
The Interpol notice, which effectively puts Hashemi on its Most Wanted List, is non-binding but limits Hashemi's ability to travel abroad by calling on member countries to extradite him to Iraq.
Hashemi fled Baghdad to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq in December where he was under the protection of the Kurdish government. Hashemi claims that the charges against him are motivated by the Shi'a-led Iraqi leadership's animosity towards Sunni politicians and that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad.
William Hale, professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies and author of the book "Turkey, the US and Iraq," told SES Türkiye that if Hashemi were to return to Baghdad to face trial, "this could trigger renewed fighting between Sunnis and Shi'as, threatening a break-up of Iraq -- the last thing Turkey wants."
"The Turkish government, like many others, fears that Prime Minister Maliki is trying to set up an exclusively Shi'a government, whereas stability and development in Iraq depends on maintaining a partnership between Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds," he explained.
Hale says that Ankara also has a special interest in preserving good relations with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who is clearly taking Hashemi's side against what he views as the increasing authoritarianism of Maliki.
Turkey has developed strong political and economic relations with the Iraqi Kurds, who Ankara views through the prism of its own Kurdish issue and the struggle with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
According to Kirk H. Sowell, an Iraq expert and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, "Turkey's rapprochement with Barzani, who has long been very anti-Maliki, adds to the problem regarding Hashemi."
Meanwhile, Turkey's support for the al-Iraqiya bloc, consisting of Sunni Arabs including Hashemi as well as secular Shi'a, has led Maliki to accuse Ankara on several occasions over the past months of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. Turkey denies the charges, blaming Maliki instead for pursuing sectarian-based policies.
"Turkey has been placed in a difficult position. Ankara’s moral support for Hashemi has been used to sectarianise its image as the Ottoman protector of the Sunnis," Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told SES Türkiye. "Turkey has tried hard to engage all sects and not to be placed in any corner on the sectarian spectrum."
Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Centre at Zirve University, views the Hashemi case as one additional element of a deteriorating relationship between Ankara and Maliki.
"Ankara is consolidating its critical stance on a Maliki-led Iraq through the Hashemi case. The Hashemi affair will increase the rupture between Baghdad and Ankara," Bacik said, adding that any Maliki-led Iraq will take a more pro-Iran, pro-Syria position.
But Abdulmuttalip Ozbek, a ruling AK Party politician who formerly chaired the Turkey-Iraq Friendship Group in parliament, hopes that Iraqi leaders will "express their will and readiness to overcome all the regional and domestic misunderstandings, including the VP's visit to Turkey."
"Hashemi's visit here is also a sign of the bilateral friendship and brotherhood among our countries. He came here for [medical] treatment. I assume he will feel better very soon and return to his motherland," Ozbek told SES Türkiye.
For Mardini, the Hashemi case would ideally be resolved through a face-saving mechanism that is politically feasible for Maliki and provides Hashemi security.
Realistically, however, Mardini says that Hashemi's political life is likely finished in Iraq. "It is difficult to conceive him returning to Baghdad, let alone as the sitting vice president."
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