ANKARA, Oct 4, (Agencies): The presidents of Iran and Turkey vowed during talks in Tehran on Wednesday to work closely together to prevent the disintegration of Iraq and Syria and to oppose the Iraqi Kurds’ drive for independence.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey, a NATO member, have traditionally had cool relations but both have been alarmed by the Iraqi Kurds’ vote for independence in a Sept 25 referendum, fearing it will stoke separatism among their own Kurdish populations. “We want security and stability in the Middle East … The independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan is a sectarian plot by foreign countries and is rejected by Tehran and Ankara,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said, according to state TV. “We will not accept a change of borders under any circumstances.”
Iran and Turkey have already threatened to join Baghdad in imposing economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan and have launched joint military exercises with Iraqi troops on their borders with the separatist region. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who is on a one-day trip to Tehran that will also include talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Ankara was considering taking further measures against Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We have already said we don’t recognise the referendum in northern Iraq … We have taken some measures already with Iran and the Iraqi central government, but stronger steps will be taken,” he said. Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region announced on Tuesday it was calling presidential and parliamentary elections for Nov 1. Baghdad has responded with further punitive measures. Iraq’s central government, its neighbours and Western powers fear the vote in favour of secession could spark another, wider conflict in the Middle East region to add to the war in Syria, and fear it could derail the fight against Islamic State.
The Kurds are the region’s fourth largest ethnic group, spread across Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, all of which oppose any moves towards a Kurdish state. Erdogan, whose security forces are embroiled in a decades-long battle with Kurdish separatists in southeast Turkey, repeated in Tehran his accusation that Israel was behind the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum. “There is no country other than Israel that recognises it. A referendum which was conducted by sitting side by side with Mossad has no legitimacy,” he said, referring to the Israeli intelligence agency. Israel has denied Turkey’s previous claims of involvement in the vote, but has welcomed the Kurds’ vote for independence. Rouhani also said on Wednesday that Tehran and Ankara planned to expand their economic ties. “Turkey will import more gas from Iran … Meetings will be held next week to discuss the details,” he said.
Four Turkish soldiers were killed on Wednesday in a bombing blamed on Kurdish militants in the restive southeast, the local governor’s office said. Another four soldiers were injured when a handmade bomb detonated as an armoured vehicle drove past in the Yuksekova district of Hakkari province, the governorate said in a statement. It blamed a “separatist terrorist organisation” — the official term for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged an insurgency in Turkey since 1984, during which over 40,000 people have been killed.
The group is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the United States and the European Union. After the collapse of a two-year ceasefire in 2015, Turkish military operations intensified while there are frequent PKK attacks on soldiers in the southeast. Flags flew at half-staff across Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday as Iraqi Kurds began observing a week of mourning following the death of the country’s former president, Jalala Talabani, once a symbol of unity. Talabani’s death at a Berlin hospital on Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 83, came just days after the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial referendum on independence that has angered Baghdad and the region.
A longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, Talabani in 2005 became the head of state of what was supposed to be a new Iraq two years after the country was freed from the rule of Saddam Hussein. He was seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012, after which he was moved to Germany for treatment and faded from Iraq’s political life. Sadi Ahmed Pire, a spokesman for the Kurdish party which Talabani headed, said on Wednesday that Talabani’s burial would take place in the city of Sulaimaniyah over the weekend. Following news of Talabani’s passing, leaders across Iraq and beyond released statements expressing their condolences. Talabani was “a long standing figure in the fight against dictatorship and a sincere partner in building a new democratic Iraq,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.
The Kurdish regional president and longtime Talabani rival, Masoud Barzani, described him as a “comrade” in a statement posted to Twitter, also on Tuesday. Barzani also extended his condolences to the Kurdish people and Talabani’s family. The United Nations described Talabani as “a leading voice of moderation, dialogue, mutual understanding and respect in Iraq’s contemporary politics” and a “patriot of unique wisdom and foresight.” “From the battlefront trenches in the 1980s during the struggle against dictatorship to the halls of power in Baghdad in the past decade, ‘Mam Jalal’ worked for and promoted national rights,” said Jan Kubis, the UN’s special representative to Iraq in a written statement late Tuesday night, using Talabani’s Kurdish nickname that translates to Uncle Jalal.