BAGHDAD/ANKARA (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declined on Saturday an offer from Turkey to take part in the battle to drive Islamic State militants from Mosul, a decision that could rile Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Mosul was once part of the Ottoman empire and Turkey sees the city as firmly within its sphere of influence. Ankara is in a dispute with Iraq’s central government over the presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp near Mosul.
“I know that the Turks want to participate, we tell them thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle,” Abadi told reporters after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Baghdad on Saturday.
“If help is needed, we will ask for it from Turkey or from other regional countries,” he said.
During a visit to Turkey on Friday, Carter signaled conditional support for a possible Turkish role in the campaign and said there was an agreement in principle that could allow for eventual Turkish participation.
The details, however, were still subject to negotiation, Carter and other officials acknowledged at the time, and Iraq would need to agree.
By the tone of Abadi’s comments on Saturday, that appeared unlikely anytime soon.
Abadi said that five days prior, an official delegation from Turkey had visited Baghdad and made some recommendations.
“The reality is we didn’t see it as enough as it relates (to) withdrawing the Turkish troops from Iraq and respecting Iraqi sovereignty,” he told reporters. “The Turkish side assured the respect for Iraqi sovereignty and we want to hear from the Turkish side, in the military, in the public, more remarks in terms of respecting Iraqi sovereignty.”
Erdogan has warned of sectarian bloodshed if the Iraqi army relies on Shi‘ite militia fighters to retake the largely Sunni Muslim city of Mosul.
‘WEIGH ON OUR HEARTS’
In a speech on Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey respects every nation’s geographical boundaries, even if it “weighs on our hearts”, in what appeared to be a reference to Mosul.
“Some ignorant people come and say, ‘What relation could you have with Iraq?’ Those geographies that we talk about now are part of our soul,” he said. “Even if it weighs on our hearts, we respect every nation’s geographical borders.”
Before Abadi’s announcement, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had already criticized what he said were “provocative” comments from the Iraqi leadership, without elaborating. He said Turkey would continue to have a presence in Iraq.
Yildirim later said Turkey was prepared to “take measures” in Iraq because it was not satisfied by promises that Kurdish militants and Shi‘ite militias would not take part in the fighting.
“We have made every preparation to take our measures because the promises given by the United States and Iraq about the PKK and Shi‘ite militias not being part of operations has not satisfied us yet,” he told a group of reporters, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey.
Carter, while acknowledging the sensitive nature of the topic, was upbeat about his meeting with Abadi when speaking to reporters shortly before leaving Baghdad.
He expressed confidence the United States could play a constructive role on the issue but repeatedly stressed that Washington respected Iraqi sovereignty.
A senior U.S. defense official on Friday said the United States recognized that Turkey had legitimate security concerns over the outcome of the Mosul campaign.
The push to capture it is expected to become the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Mosul is about five times bigger than any other city held by Islamic State.
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli and David Dolan; Editing by Helen Popper and Grant McCool