Top Iraq Shia cleric criticises Turkish deployment

AFP , Friday 11 Dec 2015

Iraq's top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday criticised the deployment of Turkish troops and tanks to the country's north without Baghdad's approval.

Baghdad has demanded that Ankara remove the newly-deployed forces, which were sent to a base near the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, but Turkey has pushed for them to stay.

No country should "send its soldiers to the territory of another state under the pretext of supporting it in fighting terrorism without the conclusion of an agreement... between the governments of the two countries," Sistani said in remarks delivered by a representative at weekly Friday prayers.

Turkey has been training forces opposed to the Islamic State jihadist group, which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last year, at the base where the recently-deployed troops were sent.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has defended the deployment as an "act of solidarity" and said: "When the threats (to the trainers) increased, we sent troops to protect the camp."

But the base also gives Turkey a foothold in an area where a major ground operation against IS is eventually to take place, and where its archfoe, Turkish Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers' Party, has also sought to expand its presence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose high-profile reform programme has accomplished little in the way of lasting change, can ill afford another setback now, but repeated calls for a Turkish withdrawal have not led to a pullout.

On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that "it is our duty to address the Baghdad government's concerns" but indicated that Ankara wanted Iraqi approval for the deployment.

"Especially after starting the fight against (IS), threats have increased against Turkey and our forces on the ground. It is the Turkish republic's duty to ensure our troops' security," Cavusoglu said during a live interview on NTV television.

IS "still controls around 35 percent of Iraqi territory. Do you (Iraq) have a force to ensure security of our troops providing training there? No. Then who will protect them? We are discussing this," he said.

But the foreign minister, on a conciliatory note, said Ankara had stopped further deployment of troops to the region due to "our respect to Iraq and the Baghdad government".

Earlier this week, Iraq gave Turkey 48 hours to remove the forces, but the deadline passed without Ankara doing so and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan subsequently ruled out a withdrawal.

"What they do in Bashiqa and at the camp is training," Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara late on Thursday, referring to the area where the base is located.

"The number of our soldiers will increase or reduce according to the number of peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish forces) who are trained. (Their) withdrawal is out of the question," Erdogan said.

Top Iraqi officials reiterated their demand for a withdrawal during talks on Thursday with a Turkish delegation that included foreign ministry under secretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, officials said.

Baghdad has threatened to take the case to the UN Security Council.

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