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The Iraq Report: Turkey's silent invasion of Iraq

Date of publication: 5 June, 2018

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Our weekly round-up of events in Iraq this week features Ankara's attack on the PKK in the Qandil mountains.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox
 

In news that has flown almost completely under the radar, the Turkish government has become embroiled in a military offensive in northern Iraq, drawing condemnation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government in Baghdad.

Turkey is attempting to finally stop attacks on its territory by Kurdish militants headquartered in northern Iraq's forbidding mountain terrain, but its offensive has been slow, leading to speculation that Ankara will either have to withdraw or stay in Iraq militarily for the long-term.

Aside from Iraq's latest breach of sovereignty and the ongoing governmental predicament following last month's elections, Iraq is facing an unprecedented water and energy crisis, despite a global rise in the price of crude oil generating windfall profits in the national budget.

Oil has generated other concerns, as Iran has been expanding its interests in Iraq by acquiring Iraqi oil from the rich Kirkuk oilfield. This is likely to create tensions with the United States and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, who accuse Tehran of attempting to dominate the Middle East.

Turkey's ghost war on the PKK in Iraq

Reports over the weekend have thrown some light on a little-reported military operation in which Turkey has been engaged in northern Iraq for the past couple of months.

The New Arab's
Arabic-language service was one of few outlets to report Turkish military units launching a ground assault in northern Iraq on Saturday, targeting militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK.

Hundreds of Turkish soldiers, armed with heavy weaponry, advanced approximately 27 kilometres into Iraqi territory controlled by the KRG. Their objective was to inflict a decisive defeat against the PKK by destroying their main Iraqi headquarters in the Qandil mountains.

 

According to the Turkish government, Ankara launched the operation in pursuit of PKK militants and to prevent further attacks on Turkish soil originating from operatives based in Iraq. The Qandil mountain range has long been used by the PKK as something of a safe haven, with its treacherous passes making the movement of large military formations nigh on impossible, all while providing effective cover against airstrikes.

While Turkey claims to be operating with the permission of the Iraqi government, both Baghdad and Erbil have denied Ankara's claims, and have criticised the incursion as well as the PKK's presence - which they say is causing instability and provoking neighbouring countries.

Speaking at a meal to break the Ramadan fast on Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Ankara had acted in Iraq to "eliminate terror".

"We have doubled our presence in northern Iraq. We have exactly 11 bases," Yildirim said. "Our aim is to eliminate terror before it infiltrates our soil, and to secure our border."

Turkish forces had been filmed by Turkish media outlet Haberturk sharing meals with villagers in Barmiza in Bradost district on Friday. However, and since then, Ankara has made little progress towards the Qandil mountains, with some analysts on Twitter providing maps showing a similar, smaller-scale operation in April had made similar progress but got bogged down in the mountains before retreating.


Due to the difficult terrain and the small number of forces despatched to northern Iraq by Ankara, this latest incursion may simply be a way to drum up greater support for the ruling party ahead of Turkish voters heading to the polls on 24 June.

Nevertheless, it is still a significant step, and one that shows Turkey's frustration with the persistence of the PKK in launching attacks on its territory against its citizens and soldiers.

Turkey has been engaged in a protracted conflict with the PKK since the 1980s, leading to the deaths of 40,000 civilians. The PKK says it is fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, while Ankara accuses the PKK of using terrorism to achieve its ends rather than engaging in the peaceful exercise of democratic politics. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

'Striking incongruities' in voter fraud crisis

Fears over widespread electoral fraud in last month's national elections have continued to mount, as Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) cancelled the results from 1,021 polling stations.

The decision to annul the votes and recount 10 percent of others - amounting to more than a million ballots - was spurred by a decision of the outgoing Iraqi parliament, with many lawmakers calling for a total recount and some even demanding new elections.

The decision has mainly targeted those living abroad, as well as internally displaced people living in camps. Already a marginalised and vulnerable community, Iraqi IDPs now risk having even less of a voice than they did before, with some candidates allied to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi openly disparaging IDPs as "Daesh families", using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Allegations of voter fraud are most likely to hit governorates such as Kirkuk, whose vote typically reflects its ethnically mixed population. But this year's Kirkuk vote resulted in the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) sweeping to victory at the expense of Arab and Turkmen parties.

 

The International Crisis Group has said these results have two "striking incongruities" - including the fact that the PUK "won in several non-Kurdish areas where the party is not known to have any support". Kurdish turnout was also low compared with previous elections, and the turnout of Arab and Turkmen voters, which was not reflected in the number of seats scooped up by the PUK, raised doubts about the integrity of the vote.

While certain irregularities may increase calls for another election, this could be attributed to the anger felt by many outgoing lawmakers that anti-establishment coalitions won the day in the 12 May vote. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's victory caught many long-term political figures off guard, triggering widespread allegations of foul play.

However, and while recounts may change the results in Kirkuk, they are unlikely to change the overall outcome of the elections. This is particularly as, of the millions of IDPs currently living in camps, only some 200,000 had registered to vote. Cancelling their vote will have a minimal impact on the overall result.

Energy-rich Iraq suffers energy crisis

Protests have broken out across several Iraqi governorates since last week, with demonstrators furious that they still did not have regular access to reliable electric power grids.

At a press conference on Saturday, electricity minister Qasim al-Fahdawi, called on Iraqis to be patient as his department attempted to solve the latest crisis. He also asked citizens to "wisely limit their consumption of energy" as Iraq faces scorching summer temperatures.

Fahdawi stated that his ministry had actually succeeded in increasing power output this year compared with last, but that these successes had encouraged Iraqis to increase their electricity usage, straining the system even further and leading to nationwide outages.

Despite being one of the most energy-rich countries in the world, Iraq has been suffering from recurring energy crises caused by the corruption and mismanagement of several governments. The economic situation has further exacerbated the problem, leading to a lack of investment in the already tenuous power grid.

This comes as oil experts told The New Arab on Sunday that the increase in global oil prices would create a windfall of profits for Iraqi coffers this year to the tune of $25 billion. According to experts, this would reduce Iraq's reliance on loans, and will allow it to re-invest in sectors that had been neglected while Baghdad prioritised military spending in its fight against IS.

Seeking to maximise profits, Iraq has also begun to start exporting Kirkuk's vast oil reserves to neighbouring Iran.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 barrels per day of Kirkuk crude will be delivered by tanker trucks to Iranian refineries at Darreh Shahr in southwestern Iran. However, the two countries plan to build a pipeline to negate the reliance on trucking - which is easily exposed to insurgent activity and other risks.

Although the deal was brokered between oil ministry officials and the Chamber of Commerce, Reuters reported on Monday that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was well-positioned to profit. According to Reuters, the deal was overseen by the IRGC desk responsible for Iran's investments in Iraq.

Tehran is also faced with the consequences of Washington's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and therefore Iran will be seeking to double down on its investments in Iraq to maintain its influence at the expense of the US. Baghdad's acquiescence to Tehran's oil trading demands will likely cause jitters in both Washington and Riyadh, as Saudi Arabia continues to push for the international community to isolate Iran and limit its regional influence.



The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox
 

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