Turkey and Iraq pledged greater cooperation on trade and counter-terrorism while admitting to disagreements over Syria’s war during a landmark visit to Baghdad by the Turkish foreign minister on Sunday.
Ahmet Davutoglu’s two-day visit has been billed as giving a “fresh start” to relations between the neighbouring countries, which have clashed on issues ranging from the conflict in Syria to Ankara’s ties with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
It is the latest in a series of steps towards a rapprochement aimed at restoring relations that had been on the upswing as recently as 2011.
“I saw a strong willingness to improve relations between our countries,” Davutoglu said during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.
“The most damaged countries from the Syrian crisis are Iraq and Turkey.”
Davutoglu, who earlier met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other top officials, said he had offered Turkey’s help in fighting militancy in Iraq, which has been rising this year with October the most violent month since 2008.
Diplomats and officials attribute much of the rise in violence to spillover from Syria’s civil war, but the government has also faced criticism for not doing more to accommodate Iraq’s disenchanted Sunni Arab minority.
Zebari said the pair also discussed strengthening commercial ties, with bilateral trade currently standing at $12 billion a year, which the Iraqi foreign minister said made Ankara Iraq’s biggest trading partner.
“The most important goal for us is to naturalise and restore diplomatic and political relations back to their normal state,” Zebari said.
“There is willingness in Baghdad and Ankara to push relations forward.”
But he acknowledged differences over Syria, where Turkey has backed opposition groups and called for embattled President Bashar al-Assad to quit power, while Iraq has insisted it is neutral despite claims from critics that it is implicitly backing the Syrian regime.
“Certainly as two states, we have two different visions (regarding Syria), not necessarily matching each other 100 percent,” Zebari said.
“Turkey has good relations with the opposition. We have relations with the opposition and the government. There is space where we can collaborate, even if we do not agree.”
“We have to work together to prevent complete chaos in Syria, so that the crisis does not move to our own countries.”
The Turkish foreign minister was due to hold further talks in Baghdad on Sunday, followed by meetings with religious leaders in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala on Monday.
Ties between Iraq and Turkey had been rapidly improving in the run-up to the Syrian conflict, with multiple visits to Baghdad by both Davutoglu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But disagreements over how to deal with Syria were followed by Ankara’s decision in early 2012 to give refuge to former Iraqi vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, convicted in absentia of organising death squads.
They have accused each other of inciting sectarian tensions and, at various stages, summoned each other’s ambassadors in tit-for-tat manoeuvres.
Baghdad has also slammed mooted energy deals between Ankara and the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“This marks a resumption of normal relations, and an end to tensions,” Maliki’s spokesman Ali al-Mussawi said before Davutoglu’s arrival. “We hope relations will return to their normal state.”
“The two countries have joint interests, history and challenges,” he continued.
“Warm relations do not mean agreeing on all regional issues … On those that we have differences, we will talk about them and solve them through dialogue.”