By Alakbar Raufoglu
While in Iraq last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an historic visit to Kurdish regions in the country’s north, including the holy city of Arbil. He was accompanied by more than 100 officials and businessmen.
Erdogan met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and opened a new Turkish-built airport. He carried specific messages to the Iraqi Kurds, an administration official told SETimes.
“Our message to them was we are not ignoring them,” Chairman of the Turkey-Iraq Friendship Group Abdulmutallip Ozbek said. “We are brothers, and there are family ties between us.”
“This trip showed again [that] our nations can overcome all problems and benefit from each other,” he added. Ankara is looking forward to a follow-up the trip.
According to some local analysts, however, major hurdles remain. Foremost among these is the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq.
“There should be better border protection — especially to prevent any PKK infiltration from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey,” Washington-based Turkey analyst Tulin Daloglu told SETimes.
Although significant changes in Iraqi Kurdistan are unlikely, Ankara should be closely following these developments and have open dialogue with political actors there, she added.
Serhat Erkmen, Iraq analyst at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, agreed that the relationship between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds is still beset by distractions.
“But what Turkey says now is to put all of the disagreements aside and look forward,” he said, adding that Erdogan’s visit “brings a new turn”.
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“The moral side of this visit will result in many years of advantages,” Erkmen added.”If Turkey achieves its targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region today, the two can unite against terror in the future.”
Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Erdogan’s visit indicates the Turkish government is positioned to play a big role in Iraq as the United States prepares to withdraw forces by the end of 2011.
“Turkey’s engagement will be critical in trying to limit Iran’s influence in Iraq,” he told SETimes. “The effectiveness of the Turkish role will depend on relations Turkey maintains with different Iraqi players and also the increasing presence of Turkish businesses in Iraq.”
Iraq badly needs foreign investment to rebuild its economy and crumbling infrastructure. With $10 billion in bilateral trade this year, Turkey is a major investor. But some parts of the country are effectively off-limits like the country’s north, where bilateral trade rose only 30% over the last four years.