Tension is high in the Iraqi town of Bashiqa, near Mosul, as Peshmerga soldiers from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government begin an offensive to recapture it as part of a major operation to clear ISIL fighters from the country.
Turkey has at least 500 troops stationed in a camp near Bashiqa, only 15 kms away from the latest offensive, training thousands of Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers for the battle to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, which started on October 17.
Turkey wants to take part in the battle, but Iraq has repeatedly declined the offer and called for the withdrawal of the Turkish soldiers from Bashiqa.
At approx 0630hrs, Peshmerga Forces began an offensive from two fronts near Bashiqa, North East of Mosul, following recent gains. #FreeMosul
— Peshmerga Command (@GCPFKurdistan) October 23, 2016
“I know the Turks want to participate. We tell them: Thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle,” Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi prime minister, said on Saturday after a meeting with Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, in Baghdad.
Earlier, Carter said he was confident Turkey would take part in the operation.
“I think there is agreement in principle,” he said after a visit to Turkey. “Iraq understands that Turkey, as a member of the counter-ISIL coalition, will play a role in counter-ISIL operations in Iraq.
“Secondly, Turkey, since it neighbours the region of Mosul, has an interest [in] the ultimate outcome in Mosul. I’m confident that we can work things out.”
Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, criticised Iraq’s leadership, saying it was “being provocative” with recent comments and said his country will continue to have a presence in Iraq.
“In recent days, there have been warnings from Iraq. We will not listen to this, nobody can tell us to not be concerned about the region,” Yildirim told a conference of the ruling AK Party, being in the western Turkish province of Afyon.
“The Iraqi leadership is being provocative. Turkey does not bow to anyone’s threats. Turkey will continue to be present there.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given warnings of sectarian bloodshed if the Iraqi army relies on Shia fighters to retake the largely Sunni city of Mosul.
Mosul is about five times the size of any other city ISIL has held, and the push to capture it is expected to become the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Mosul was once part of the Ottoman Empire and is still seen by Turkey as firmly within its sphere of influence.
A senior US defence official indicated that Turkey could provide medical or humanitarian support, or train Iraqi forces.
Turkey fears the operation to retake Mosul could be spearheaded by Shia and Kurdish armed groups that are vehemently opposed by Turkey.