ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Premier Mohammed Shia al-Sudani on Tuesday lauded the cooperation between the two countries but reported only limited progress on the contentious bilateral rifts.
Sudani, who traveled to Turkey for the first time since he came to power in October 2022, met with Erdogan during a state visit to the country.
Speaking at a joint presser, the two leaders pledged to deepen their cooperation on a series of fields and announced the start of a major rail and highway transport project, but the talks yielded only a palliative compromise on one of the top contentious issues in the two countries’ ties: the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq, and the water-sharing dispute on transboundary rivers shared by Turkey and Iraq.
“We’ve decided to increase the flow from the Tigris River for a month in a bid to alleviate Iraq’s [water] problem,” said Erdogan. “We know that Iraq is facing an acute water shortage.”
The water-sharing issue concerning the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is a long-standing dispute causing recurring tensions between Baghdad and Ankara. Iraqi authorities charge that the dams Turkey built on rivers are causing a decline in water levels on the Iraqi side, exacerbating the country’s drought problem. Ankara argues that Iraqi authorities need to advance their irrigation technology for more effective usage of water.
“We can only overcome the problems of transboundary waters with rational and scientific methods,” said Erdogan.
Sudani said they were grateful for the move, but his emphasis on Iraq’s sovereignty and security showed that the parties have been unable to bridge their differences on Baghdad’s mounting irritation over Turkey’s ongoing cross-border operations in northern Iraq.
“We do not want the security issues to negatively affect our relationships,” said Sudani. Last year, the Iraqi government blamed Ankara for an artillery strike in the region that killed nine civilians. Ankara denied any responsibility for the attack, which set off a major escalation between the two countries.
The increasing number of Turkish military outposts in northern Iraq as part of Turkey’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), headquartered in the mountains of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, remains one of the most inflammable issues between the two countries. Baghdad argues Turkey is violating Iraqi sovereignty through its ongoing air and land campaigns against the outlawed Kurdish militants.
“We believe that security problems can be overcome through intelligence and information sharing. Our only desire is for a solution that will protect Iraq’s security and sovereignty without resorting to violence,” said Sudani.
Baghdad has repeatedly called on Ankara to withdraw its troops from northern Iraq — particularly from the so-called Bashiqa base near the northeastern Iraqi city of Mosul. The base has been a frequent target of pro-Iranian groups. Established to train Sunni forces against the Islamic State onslaught in 2015, the base is now being used for Turkish military campaigns against the PKK.
Erdogan remained unrelenting on his country’s position over Turkish presence.
“Turkey is the biggest defender of Iraqi political unity and territorial integrity. From time to time, opinions of difference may emerge between the neighbors,” he said, adding his country was ready to cooperate with Baghdad on combating terrorism.
“Our expectation from our Iraqi brothers is to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and to clear out these terrorists from its land,” said Erdogan. PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and several Western powers.
In addition to deepening their cooperation in combating terrorism, both leaders expressed their desire to increase trade and investment. Erdogan said the leaders instructed their governments to work on a rail and a highway project that would link Iraq’s southern oil-rich province of Basra to Turkish borders.
Sudani is set to meet with Turkish business people on Wednesday to discuss ways to improve trade ties as part of his two-day visit.