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Kurdish separatists and water issues loom large in long-awaited Erdogan visit to Iraq

BAGHDAD — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to make his first official visit to Iraq in more than a decade on Monday as his country seeks greater cooperation from Baghdad in its fight against a Kurdish militant group that has a foothold in northern Iraq.

Other issues also loom large between the two countries, including water supply issues and exports of oil and gas from northern Iraq to Turkey, which have been halted for more than a year.

Erdogan’s last visit to Iraq was in 2011, when he was Turkey’s prime minister.

Iraqi government spokesperson Bassem al-Awadi said in a statement that Erdogan’s visit will be a “major starting point in Iraqi-Turkish relations” and will include the signing of a deal on a “joint approach to security challenges” and a “strategic agreement on the water file,” among other issues.

Erdogan has said his country plans to launch a major operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement banned in Turkey and with operations in Iraq, during the summer, with the aim of “permanently” eradicating the threat it poses.

Turkey has carried out numerous ground offensives against the group in northern Iraq in the past while Turkish jets frequently target suspected PKK targets in the region.

Ankara now aims to create a 30- to 40-kilometer (19 to 25-mile) deep security corridor along the joint border with Iraq, Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler told journalists last month.

The group, whose fight for an autonomous Kurdish state in southeast Turkey has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s, is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies.

Baghdad has complained in the past that Turkish operations against the PKK violate its sovereignty, but appears to be coming closer to Ankara’s stance.

In March, after a meeting between the Iraqi and Turkish foreign ministers, Baghdad announced that the Iraqi National Security Council had issued a ban on the PKK, although it stopped short of designating it as a terrorist organization.

The two countries issued a joint statement in which they said the group represents a “security threat to both Turkey and Iraq” and that its presence on Iraqi territory was a “violation of the Iraqi Constitution.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani told journalists during a visit to Washington last week that Iraq and Turkey have “true interests with one another and common projects.” He noted that the PKK has long had a presence in northern Iraq, “but we are not allowing any armed group to be on Iraqi territory and using it as a launch pad for attacks.”

Ankara has argued that the presence of PKK bases poses a threat to the planned construction of a major trade route, the Iraq Development Road, that would connect the port of Grand Faw in Basra, southern Iraq, to Turkey and Europe through a network of rail lines and highways.

Baghdad might take a similar approach to the PKK as it has taken to Iranian Kurdish dissident groups based in northern Iraq.

The presence of the Iranian dissidents had become a point of tension with Tehran, which periodically launched airstrikes on their bases in Iraq. Last summer, Iran and Iraq reached an agreement to disarm the dissident groups and relocate their members from military bases to displacement camps.

Talks between Erdogan and Iraqi officials are also expected to focus on energy cooperation as well as the possible resumption of oil flow through a pipeline to Turkey.

A pipeline running from the semiautonomous Kurdish region to Turkey has been shut down since March 2023, after an arbitration court ruling ordered Ankara to pay Iraq $1.5 billion for oil exports that bypassed the Iraqi central government. The sharing of oil and gas revenues has long been a contentious issue between Baghdad and Kurdish authorities in Irbil.

Water rights are also likely to be a key issue on the table.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which provide most of Iraq’s fresh water, originate in Turkey. In recent years, Iraqi officials have complained that dams installed by Turkey are reducing Iraq’s water supply. Experts fear that climate change is likely to exacerbate existing water shortages in Iraq, with potentially devastating consequences.

Mustafa Hassan, a resident of Baghdad said that he hopes that Erdogan’s visit “will help to solve problems related to water, because Iraq is suffering from a water scarcity crisis, and this affects agriculture.”

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Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, and Ali Jabar in Baghdad, contributed to this report.

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