Despite Ankara's claims that it has an agreement with Baghdad to justify the presence of Turkish troops in Iraqi territory, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has so far failed to provide a copy of any such agreement that would refute accusations leveled by Iraqi officials.
"There is no security agreement whatsoever between Iraq and Turkey that allows for an incursion into Iraq by Turkish forces to chase the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party, listed as terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community]," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Mohammad Hussein in a speech to the UN Security Council on July 26, 2022.
"Nevertheless, Turkey is adamant that such an agreement exists," he added at an emergency meeting convened in New York at the request of Iraq against the backdrop of mortar shelling in the village of Barakh, located in the Dohuk governorate's Zakho district, which resulted in the loss of nine civilian lives and the wounding of 33 others on July 20, 2022.
Iraq accused Turkey of the shelling, while Turkey denied the allegation and instead blamed it on the PKK. The PKK denied responsibility, saying it has no presence in the area and pointed the finger at Turkey.
According to UN findings, five artillery rounds struck the Parkha resort, a well-known tourist destination, when it was packed with visitors. The first round hit an unpopulated hillside overlooking the resort, while the rest hit the center of the complex. Among the dead were three children, one of whom was a 1-year-old infant named Zahrah Durgham Muhammad.
Iraq referred the matter to the UN Security Council in an urgent filing on July 22, 2022 and asked the council to "use all means available to ensure that Turkey is obliged to withdraw, without delay, Turkish troops from Iraqi territory to the recognized international border between the two countries, and not to repeat those violations."
Similar tensions between the two countries erupted in December 2015 with Turkey's deployment of a battalion and dozens of tanks to Bashiqa, officially called Gedu, a base near the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Baghdad demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish troops, with the federal government threatening to go to the UN Security Council with a formal complaint if Turkey did not pull its troops out. Turkish officials played down the nature of the troop deployment following the uproar on the Iraqi side, calling the move a routine troop rotation.
Then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the Turkish forces had set up camp near Mosul almost a year earlier in coordination with the Iraqi authorities. But no details or copy of such an agreement was ever released to the public, reinforcing Baghdad's assertion that there has in fact never been such agreement. Turkish President Erdoğan said at the time that it was out of the question for the troops to be entirely withdrawn from Iraq.
Nevertheless, to allay Iraq's concerns and relieve global pressure on Turkey, Ankara eventually decided to "reorganize" its military personnel at the Bashiqa camp after then-Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan visited Baghdad for talks.
Turkish officials never explained what the troop reorganization would involve, but apparently a deal was struck in Baghdad to withdraw tanks from the base. After a bitter week-long dispute with Baghdad, Turkey reportedly partially withdrew some of its troops from the camp near Mosul and repositioned them near the Turkey-Iraq border.
However, Nordic Monitor revealed in 2020 that the troop reorganization and withdrawal of tanks never took place. Instead, Turkey staged a false withdrawal of tanks to ease tensions. The revelation was made at a Turkish court hearing in July 2017 by Lt. Murat Aletirik of the Special Forces Command, who was deployed to Iraq's Kurdistan region.
"A fake withdrawal was executed after reactions from the Iraqi government and other countries following the opening of the Bashiqa base [near Mosul]," he said, adding, "In this context, a pipe resembling a tank gun was attached to a truck to make it appear like a real tank and covered with a tarp. It was then towed by military trucks."
According to a classified Turkish military document that shows the Turkish army presence in northern Iraq as of July 12, 2016, there were 1,151 troops from various force units including four battalions from the elite Special Forces Command — 36 tanks and some two dozen armored personnel carriers and armored combat vehicles in total. In Bashiqa alone Turkey maintained 739 troops including 42 officers and 18 noncommissioned officers. The base was equipped with 18 tanks, four 155-mm artillery cannons, a radar unit and other military hardware. An additional 25 tanks and 116 troops were on standby and ready to be transported to Iraq's north.
Turkey has expanded its troop presence since 2016 and added more outposts in northern Iraq, while Turkish intelligence agency MIT intensified its clandestine operations, especially the assassination of senior leaders of the PKK in drone attacks. According to a report submitted to the Iraqi Parliament by the Ministry of Defense, Turkey currently has more than 4,000 troops in Iraq and an established presence 105 kilometers into Iraqi territory.
The same report noted that Turkey has over 100 outposts in the Kurdistan region as well as along the Turkish-Iraqi border. The Iraqi Defense Ministry also concluded that the shelling of the resort originated from a Turkish army base located in Turkey near the Iraqi border.
According to reports submitted to the UN by the Iraqi authorities, Turkey has committed a total 22,742 violations against the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Iraq since 2018. Iraqi authorities also stated that they collected evidence from the scene of the recent attack on the resort that included shrapnel from 155-millimeter caliber artillery shells, which are the same as those used by the Turkish army in the area surrounding the resort.
Baghdad accuses Turkey of exporting its own domestic Kurdish problem to Iraq and using the PKK to justify what it describes as the illegal presence of Turkish troops in Iraqi territory. It also condemned the resolution adopted by the Turkish Parliament in October 2021 to extend the presence of Turkish forces in Iraq for another two years.
At the UN Security Council meeting, the Iraqi foreign minister further noted that Turkey falsely claims that there is an agreement with Iraq that would allow for a Turkish military presence in the country when in fact there is no such agreement.
In its defense Turkey claims the Iraqi government cannot exercise effective sovereignty over certain parts of its territory in the north, allowing PKK militants to control an area of at least 10,000 square kilometers in Iraq. It says nearly 800 villages have been forcibly evacuated by the PKK and that all of them have become safe havens for the terrorists.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.