Turkey extends troop deployment mandate, pressures Iraqi Kurds on vote

By Daren Butler and Raya Jalabi

ISTANBUL/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Turkey’s parliament voted on Saturday to extend by a year a mandate authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria, stepping up pressure against an independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region in two days’ time.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would take security, economic and political steps in response to the referendum, which President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman described as a “terrible mistake” that would trigger new regional crises.

The United States and other Western powers have, like Turkey, urged authorities in the semi-autonomous Iraqi region to cancel Monday’s vote. They say the move by the oil-producing area distracts from the fight against Islamic State.

In Iraq, a Kurdistan regional government delegation arrived in Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi government in an effort to defuse tensions, but a senior Kurdish official said the vote was going ahead.

“The delegation will discuss the referendum but the referendum is still happening,” Hoshiyar Zebari, a top adviser to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, told Reuters.

Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest army, said on Friday that the Iraqi vote would threaten its security and force it to slap sanctions on a neighbor and trading partner, although it did not specify what measures it might take.

Asked on Saturday if a cross-border operation was among the options, Yildirim told reporters: “Naturally, it is a question of timing as to when security, economic and security options are implemented. Developing conditions will determine that.”

The mandate approved by Turkey’s parliament on Saturday was first passed in 2014 with the aim of tackling threats from within its southern neighbors Iraq and Syria. It had been due to expire in October.

“UNCONTROLLABLE FIRE”

Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population in the region and is itself fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its soil. But it is also the main conduit for oil exports from Iraq’s Kurdish region and it has said that any break-up of neighboring Iraq or Syria could lead to a global conflict.

In a speech to parliament, Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli voiced concern about the referendum’s impact on the region’s ethnic and sectarian relationships, saying it could trigger an “uncontrollable fire”.

“Pulling out just a brick from a structure based on very sensitive and fragile balances will sow the seeds for new hatred, enmity and clashes,” he said.

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