In Iraq, Turkey has no Muslim Brotherhood to serve its agenda

The Muslim Brotherhood movement, with its branches across the Arab region, has been in the service of Turkey’s agenda for years, especially in the past two decades after Ankara moved away from its secularist approach that was the basis of the modern Turkish state.

Since the rise of President Rcep Tayyip Erdogan, the Muslim Brotherhood has become a tool for Turkey to infiltrate Arab countries and meddle with their internal affairs with the aim of realising the geostrategic and economic ambitions of the Justice and Development Party (AK) and its leader.

Iraq, of course, is not excluded from Turkey’s imperial ambitions, as the southern neighbour boasts tremendous oil wealth, while dealing with fragile political and security conditions.

While Turkey continues to interfere in Arab countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, including by supporting Islamic militant groups, its strategy to infiltrate Iraq differs due to the absence of a strong Brotherhood branch that can be relied upon.

After the fall of the Ba’ath Party regime in 2003, the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, represented by the Islamic Party, the roots of which date back to the 1940s and which was actually created in the 1960s, was not able to play a key role in governing Iraq.

Its failure was due to the strong hegemony of Iran-backed Shia parties and their monopoly of state institutions, the most important of which is the premiership.

The system that emerged after the US invasion of 2003 helped limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s ruling experience to complementary and secondary roles in the so-called democracy based on partisan, ethnic and sectarian quotas.

In order to maintain a share in power as well as material benefits and other privileges, the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq entered into alliances with Shia parties, eventually serving Iran’s interests in the country, including by helping Tehran expand its political, economic and security files, threatening Iraqi sovereignty.

In recent years, Tehran has maintained extensive relations with leaders of the Islamic Party in Iraq, whose visits with Iranian officials, including in Tehran, have become increasingly frequent.

In a report by the Carnegie Middle East Center, Muhanad Seloom, a researcher specialising in Arab and Islamic studies, describes the Iraqi Islamic Party as having “fallen victim to the complexity of Iraqi Sunni politics and to the pitfalls of functioning in an increasingly polarized ethnosectarian environment.” He said that the Islamic Party was neither able to boost its popularity nor regain an important role in governing Iraq.

In his research paper entitled “An Unhappy Return: What the Iraqi Islamic Party Gave Up to Gain Power,” Seloom says that the Islamic Party “did not endorse armed resistance against the US-led occupation and maintained good relations with its Shia and Kurdish counterparts. This facilitated the IIP’s role in governing Iraq (albeit secondary to leading Shia parties).”

“Yet the party paid a price, even before its significant decline among Sunnis in the May 2018 elections, because it failed to deliver on promises of services and security. The [Islamic Party] has demonstrated resilience, but unless it can increase its popularity, it is unlikely to regain a meaningful role in governing Iraq,” Seloom adds.

All religious parties, whether Sunni or Shia, have seen a decline in popularity in Iraq due to nearly two decades of mismanagement. The parties have been accused of entrenched corruption that has further impoverished and exhausted a society already on the brink. The popular protests beginning in October 2019 were largely a response to this trend. Despite the protest movement pushing out the old government and bringing in a new one with promises of reform and better living conditions, demonstrations have not fully subsided.

Alternative Proxy

The aforementioned factors explain Turkey’s lack of interest in the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni leaders in general to counter Iranian influence in the country. Instead, Turkey prefers to deal directly with political parties leading the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) run by Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq.

In parallel, the Turks also play the minority card, exploiting ethnic and national identities rather than the religious and sectarian dimensions.

The Turkish play on nationalism to infiltrate the Iraqi political arena is increasingly evident with Ankara’s focus on the plight of Iraqi Turkmen, who have two advantages compared to other components of Iraqi society: their main strongholds in areas of strategic importance, notably Kirkuk, which has huge oil reserves, and their ideological struggle with the Kurds who remain, according to Ankara, a threat because of their goal of independence.

Even still, Ankara has dealt with the KRG in northern Iraq, especially with oil cooperation, exporting from Kirkuk and the autonomous region via a pipeline that crosses Turkish territory towards the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.

Over the past few years, Ankara has not concealed its efforts to try and prop up Iraqi Turkmen in Kirkuk, hoping that by catapulting them into leadership positions, they can control the oil resources there, making it easier for Turkey to reach the abundant oil territory.

The Iraqi Turkmen Front recently intensified demands for the governorship of Kurkik to go to a Turkmen figure “after Arabs and Kurds occupied it for the past 17 years,” according to a recent statement issued by the President of the Turkmen Front Arshad Salhi inviting Iraqi political parties to engage in dialogue in order to change the local administration in the province.

Commenting on the statement, the Turkish government’s Anadolu News Agency said that “Arab and Turkmen representatives in Kirkuk complain that most of the important administrative positions in the province are occupied by representatives from the Kurdish Patriotic Union and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.”

This could be explained by Turkish concerns over the presence of a huge oil wealth such as in Kirkuk controlled by the Kurds, giving them increased power in the region.

Recent statements by Turkish officials reflect Ankara’s ambition to use Turkmen as a bridge to meddle in Kurkik. Dolat Bahceli, leader of the Turkish National Movement Party, said that the Iraqi Turkmen minority, which has ethnic ties to Turkey, will not be left alone in Kirkuk, noting that there are thousands of national volunteers “ready and waiting to join the fight for the existence, unity and peace in the cities inhabited by Turkmen, especially Kirkuk.”

The spokesman for the Turkish Presidency Ibrahim Kalin also said that “Kirkuk includes Kurds and Arabs but the basic identity of the province is that it is a Turkmen territory.”

Iraqi intellectuals and opinion leaders are warning against underestimating Turkey’s ambitions in Iraq. They point to increased Turkish military intervention under the pretext of counterterrorism, arguing it is likely a way to test local, regional and international reactions ahead of a future invasion and occupation of areas of the country.

Such warnings have often referenced a map circulating in Turkey and approved in school curricula in which the Iraqi provinces of Mosul, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah appear, in addition to large parts of Syria, as part of Turkish territory.


The article has been republished with permission by The Arab Weekly.