While the world waits to see if the tension between Turkey and Russia escalates, Turkey has also become embroiled in a dispute with the Iraqi government that has the potential to become more serious: Turkish troops have been crossing the border into Iraq without permission.
The BBC reports that Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador this weekend to complain about the presence of 150 Turkish troops near the ISIS-held city of Mosul. The government of Baghdad says Turkey did not seek its permission before sending this force across its border. In fact, the Iraqis went so far as to characterize the incursion as a “hostile act.”
“This is considered as a grave violation to Iraq’s sovereignty and does not respect good neighborly relations between Iraq and Turkey,” declared Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “Iraqi authorities call upon Turkey to withdraw immediately from Iraqi lands.”
The Turks say its troops have been sent to train Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in the area and described the deployment as a “routine troop rotation” to a camp set up near Mosul last year with Baghdad’s permission.
The Wall Street Journal reports a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government confirmed Turkey’s description of the mission, although it is further noted that 25 tanks and armored fighting vehicles accompanied the 150 Turkish troops.
Apparently so, according to the Turkish government, which says over 2,500 Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and officers have attended weapons and artillery training provided at the camp. The WSJ reports U.S. military officials confirming that all of the Turkish troops in the Mosul area appeared to be part of a training mission.
Baghdad does not appear mollified by these reports. The New York Times speculates that Abadi fears the presence of outside forces on Iraqi soil to fight ISIS—including the recently-announced U.S. Special Forces deployment of some 200 troops, which Abadi also denounced—will make him look weak to his constituents, while enhancing the prestige of militia groups looking to undermine his government.
Along those lines, the NYT quotes Hakim al-Zamili, a Shiite militia leader who also happens to head the Iraqi parliamentary security committee, urging Abadi to attack the Turkish positions near Mosul, sending a message about how “Iraqi sovereignty must be respected.” That seems unlikely at the moment, but Zamili is goading Abadi by making the charge and setting up a fresh round of complaints about Abadi’s weakness when Baghdad doesn’t send F-16s to bomb the Turks. (The Times article suggests Abadi’s government is only complaining about the presence of Turkish trainers near Mosul at all because of taunting from the prime minister’s critics.)
There are also long-standing tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds, which could lead to some “how dare you invite the Turks without our permission!” umbrage from the Abadi government, and the usual sectarian undertones of all Middle East crises—Abadi’s Shiite-leaning government is increasingly under Iran’s sway, while the Turks are eager to knock down Syria’s Iran-supported Shiite government.
Also, there is the uneasy relationship between Turkey, Iraq, and various Kurdish factions to consider. Turkey is bombing one group of Kurds in Turkey and exchanging some harsh words with another group of Kurds in Syria, while training a third group of Kurds in Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Both Turkey and Iraq are nervous about the idea of a unified Kurdish state appearing across national borders.