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Turkey pins hopes on Muqtada Sadr to form Iraqi government

Turkish army in Iraq

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr meets with ambassadors of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait, in Najaf, Iraq, May 18, 2018, Al Monitor reported on Wednesday.

As a variety of serious issues between Baghdad and Ankara are put on hold as Iraq forms a new government, Turkey is keeping a close watch. Having learned from its backfired intervention in 2010, Ankara is being more prudent this time around. Although Turkey likes to give the impression that it's neutral in Iraq, its heart is with the Sairoon political bloc headed by Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But that doesn’t mean the Sadr bloc is offering Turkey free rein in critical issues awaiting solutions.

Two coalitions are competing to set up the new government in Baghdad; both are led by Shiite blocs. Sadr's Sairoon says it's ready to form the government, claiming more than 180 members, including the Nasr bloc of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the National Wisdom Movement of Ammar al-Hakim, and a sprinkling of Sunni, Turkmen and Christian groups.


However, the rival Fatah Alliance claims that many Sairoon members have defected to Fatah, making it the top bloc with 145 votes. The Fatah Alliance is jointly led by Hadi al-Amiri, a commander of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iran State of Law Coalition. But one shouldn't rely on these numbers, as nobody really knows who stands where.



The Kurds are the ones to watch. They have 60 deputies in seven parties and are the key to a new government. Kurds were bitterly disappointed by Iran and Turkey’s rejection of the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017. After the Iraqi government took back control of Kirkuk in October 2017, Iran was flexible and maintained its dialogue with the Kurds, while Turkey remained in the angry neighbor mode. The common claim that Turkey is the determinant power in Iraq has withered. Ankara's influence collapsed because of several actions: its attempt in 2010 to install a Sunni bloc to run the government against Maliki; offering protection to Sunni leaders like Tariq al-Hashemi; agreeing to a unilateral, 50-year oil deal with the Kurdish government; tolerating ISIS as a Sunni movement after Mosul was captured; labeling the PMU a terror movement; and reinforcing the Turkish presence at Bashiqa base.


Neither of the rival blocs offer Turkey guarantees of a partnership and there are continuing issues such as the future of Kirkuk and the water crisis. Turkey's plan to open a new crossing at Ovakoy to bypass the current Kurdish-operated crossing at Iraq's Fish Khabur are up in the air, as are plans to construct a new pipeline to carry Iraqi oil directly to Turkey, and military operations against Kurdish militants at Qandil and Sinjar. Sources said on condition of anonymity that regardless of who sets up the new government, Turkey shouldn't have high expectations.


The Bashiqa base will continue to be a major headache after the new government forms. Kirkuk's future, the oil pipeline and the proposed border crossing all depend on whether Baghdad and the Kurds can reconcile. A major portion of the road from the Ovakoy crossing in Turkey to Tal Afar in Iraq is under Kurdish militia control.


But Sadr’s negative attitude toward foreign interventions also applies to Turkey, which still maintains troops at Bashiqa, keeps building up bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and retains ties to Turkmens in Kirkuk.


Ankara harbors hope that Sadr will stand with Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group. But Sadr has always preferred a path toward reconciling with the Kurds rather than punishing them, and is highly unlikely to change now.