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Turkey’s Push to Join Battle for Mosul Inflames Tension With Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — A dispute between Iraq and Turkey has emerged as a dramatic geopolitical sideshow to the complicated military campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has insisted on a role in the battle for Mosul, trying to ramp up an involvement in Iraq that has already alarmed the Iraqi government.

“We have a historical responsibility in the region,” Mr. Erdogan said in a recent speech, drawing on his country’s history of empire and defeat, from Ottoman rule of the Middle East to its loss in World War I. “If we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason.”

In response, the normally mild-mannered Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, warned last week of a military confrontation between Turkey and Iraq. If Turkish forces intervene in Mosul, he said, they will not “be in a picnic.”

“We are ready for them,” Mr. Abadi said. “This is not a threat or a warning, this is about Iraqi dignity.”

The rift between Turkey and Iraq is no mere diplomatic row; it is a stark example of the complete breakdown in sovereignty of not just Iraq but Syria as well. The Islamic State has erased the borders between the two countries, while Turkey has stationed troops in both countries without the permission of either government.

Turkey has already angered the Iraqi government by keeping a unit of troops at a base in Bashiqa, an area of northern Iraq near Mosul and surrounded by Islamic State territory. For more than a year, the Turks have also been training Kurdish pesh merga forces and Sunni Arab fighters in Iraq, including a militia led by a former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi.

The Turkish military deployment, even just to train local forces, has been bitterly opposed by the Iraqi government, and Mr. Abadi has demanded that the troops leave.

Now that the battle for Mosul has started, Mr. Erdogan has given a number of incendiary speeches in which he has seemed to suggest that he is itching for the Turkish military to become directly involved in the fighting.

The battle for Mosul began last week with a push by Kurdish and Iraqi forces, backed by American advisers and United States airstrikes, to take back dozens of villages outside the city. For the United States, Turkey, a NATO ally, has again proven itself a difficult partner in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.

As it has in Syria, where Turkey has opposed, and sometimes bombed, Syrian Kurdish allies that are working with the United States to fight the Islamic State, Turkey has undermined American goals in Iraq by insisting on playing a role in the fight for Mosul.

For almost a year, American diplomats have sought to contain the crisis. They have encouraged the Turks to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and aid the fight against the Islamic State by carrying out activities under the umbrella of the United States-led coalition.

But Turkey has kept its troops in Bashiqa, a deployment the Iraqi government says it never approved. According to a State Department official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing sensitive deliberations, Turkey has about 600 to 800 troops at Bashiqa, equipped with tanks and artillery, and has sometimes fired on Islamic State positions from there. Turkish troops did so Sunday in support of Kurdish pesh merga fighters, officials said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, warned in a recent article in The National Interest that Turkey and Iraq may be heading for war. He wrote that there was a “danger of a war within a war that could damage the prospects for retaking and stabilizing Mosul.”

Those fears seem extreme, if only because the Iraqis have their hands full with the Islamic State. But defusing the tension has become another challenge for American diplomats.

The United States is trying to broker a compromise in which the Turks would not directly participate in the Mosul offensive but stick to training and perhaps medical and humanitarian support. In a visit to Turkey in recent days, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said there was an agreement “in principle” between Turkey and Iraq, which the Iraqi government immediately denied. Iraq appears to want a commitment from the Turks that they will leave after Mosul is retaken.

Mr. Carter has said the United States is trying to balance “our respect for the sovereignty of Iraq” and “our respect also for Turkey’s historic role in the region.”

Turkey has a number of strategic reasons for maintaining a military presence in northern Iraq. It wants a bulwark against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which is waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey and keeps bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. The P.K.K. fought in the battle for Sinjar, in northern Iraq, last year.

Turkey, a Sunni power, also says it wants to protect ethnic Turkmens and Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq and counter the presence of Shiite Iran, which is dominant in Iraq and controls several militias. More broadly, and in keeping with Mr. Erdogan’s vision of reclaiming Ottoman glory, Turkey wants to project influence in the region, in Iraq but also in Syria, where in August the Turkish military intervened to push the Islamic State out of the city of Jarabulus.

At times, Mr. Erdogan has seized on the issue of Mosul to highlight century-old grievances that linger from the end of World War I, when Western powers divided the former Ottoman lands of the Middle East. “We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country,” he said.

He has also referred to a manifesto from the last Ottoman Parliament, as the empire crumbled, claiming Mosul as part of Turkey.

“Our most important task is to teach this to a new generation,” he said recently.

Mensur Akgun, the director of the Global Political Trends Center in Turkey, said that for Turks, “there is also an emotional side to the issue.” Referring to Mosul, Mr. Akgun said: “A century ago, that place was Turkey. A big geography was Turkey. It is committed in the memories that British and French imperialism was responsible.”

Mr. Erdogan has said he is worried about the presence in Iraq of Iranian-backed militias, which have been accused of abuses against Sunni civilians. At the same time, Turkey’s presence has inflamed sectarian passions within Iraq.

In the run-up to the Mosul battle, the United States worked closely with Iraqis to put together a force that included the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces and Sunni tribal fighters but not Shiite militias. But because of Turkey’s insistence on playing a role, Shiite militia leaders now say they, too, might join the battle.

And militia leaders have suggested that they might play a role in liberating the city of Tal Afar, near Mosul, which has alarmed Turkey because that city has a large Sunni Turkmen population.

In his recent speeches, Mr. Erdogan, who has been accused of pursuing a sectarian policy in the region by pushing a Sunni agenda, has heightened tensions.

“What you call ‘Baghdad’ is an administrator of an army composed of Shiites,” he said. “They say 30,000 Shiite militants are coming.” Warning against the involvement of the militias, he said, “They should be prepared for what they will face.”

There is no love lost between Iraqi Shiites and Turkey, going back to the days when the Ottoman Empire governed Iraq and promoted local Sunni elites. Last week, after the Mosul campaign began, Shiite protesters, organized by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, converged on the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad.

Some wore red bands denoting the Shiite militias, and had a message for Mr. Erdogan: “Leave our land with dignity before we kick you out!”

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