Turkish cultural and economic influence on the rise in Iraq
ZAKHO, Iraq — A Turkey as resurgent as at any time since its Ottoman glory is projecting influence through a turbulent Iraq, from the boomtowns of the north to the oil fields near southernmost Basra, in a show of power that illustrates its growing heft across an Arab world long suspicious of it.
Its ascent here, in an arena contested by the United States and Iran, may prove its greatest success so far, as it emerges from the shadow of its alliance with the West to chart an often assertive and independent foreign policy.
Turkey’s influence is greater in northern Iraq and broader, although not deeper, than Iran’s in the rest of the country. While the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, Turkey now exerts what may prove a more lasting legacy — so-called soft power, the assertion of influence through culture, education and business.
“This is the trick — we are very much welcome here,” said Ali Riza Ozcoskun, who heads Turkey’s consulate in Basra, one of four diplomatic posts it has in Iraq.
In the Iraqi capital, where politics are not for the faint-hearted, it promoted a secular coalition that it helped build, drawing the ire of Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, along the way. For Iraq’s abundant oil and gas, it has positioned itself as the country’s gateway to Europe, while helping to satisfy its own growing energy needs.
Just as the Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reoriented politics in Turkey, it is doing so in Iraq, with repercussions for the rest of the region.
While some Turkish officials recoil at the notion of neo-Ottomanism — an orientation of Turkey away from Europe and toward an empire that once included parts of three continents — the country’s process of globalization and attention to the markets of the Middle East is upsetting assumptions that only U.S. power is decisive. Turkey has committed itself here to economic integration, seeing its future in at least an echo of its past.
“No one is trying to overtake Iraq or one part of Iraq,” said Aydin Selcen, who heads the consulate in Erbil, which opened this year. “But we are going to integrate with this country. Roads, railroads, airports, oil and gas pipelines — there will be a free flow of people and goods between the two sides of the border.”
The economic boom they have helped propel has reverberated across Iraq. Trade between the two countries amounted to about $6 billion in 2010, almost double what it was in 2008, Turkish officials say. They project that, in two or three years, Iraq may be Turkey’s biggest export market.
“This is the very beginning,” said Rushdi Said, the flamboyant Iraqi Kurdish chairman of Adel United.