Members of the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi force. Photo: Hashd al-Shaabi media office
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Baghdad has summoned the Turkish ambassador to answer for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Shiite armed forces in Iraq as “terrorists.”
“The foreign ministry has decided to summon the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad to hand him a formal protest note regarding recent remarks by the Turkish president on the Hashd al-Shaabi,” said Ahmad Jamal, ministry spokesman, in a statement, according to AFP.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Erdogan asked, “Who are the Hashd al-Shaabi? Who is backing them? The Iraqi parliament supports Hashd al-Shaabi, but, honestly, they are a terrorist organization and should be known who stands behind it.”
He said he believes Iran’s support for the Shiite force is part of a “Persian expansion policy.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s media office issued a statement Thursday evening expressing “surprise” at Erdogan’s comments, saying it was unacceptable for the Turkish leader to weigh in on an internal matter.
The Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi, who are backed by Iran, were brought under Iraqi government control late last year. They have been accused of carrying out human rights violations, particularly in the battle for Fallujah in 2016.
“This force has its allegiance to Iraq and its people, and not any other state. It follows the orders of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” the statement from Abadi’s office read.
It added that Hashd al-Shaabi is a recognized force by law and has achieved many battlefield victories in the fight against ISIS.
“Iraq repeats its calls to the neighboring friendly countries to not interfere in its internal affairs.”
Turkish leaders have repeatedly spoken against the involvement of the Shiite force in military operations to oust ISIS from Sunni-majority cities like Mosul and Turkmen-majority centres like Tal Afar, west of Mosul.
Baghdad and Ankara have had strained relations over Turkish army presence north of Mosul where they have trained Sunni and Peshmerga forces involved in the war against ISIS. Iraqi leaders have demanded Ankara withdraw its forces from Iraq and respect the country’s sovereignty.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Baghdad in January to try and patch up relations. “Iraq’s sovereignty is very important to us,” Yildirim said in a joint press conference with Abadi after their meeting. He described Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq as “not arbitrary, but a necessity.”
While relations between Baghdad and Ankara are strained, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry thanked Iran for its support when receiving the credentials of Tehran’s new ambassador to its neighbour on Wednesday.
Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari “expressed the ministry’s readiness to provide every possible support for the Iranian diplomatic mission in order to increase the volume of cooperation and coordination in various fields, expressing gratitude for Iran’s humanitarian, service and security support in the fight against the terrorist gangs of Da’esh [ISIS],” read a statement from the ministry.
Iran’s new ambassador to Iraq is Iraj Masjedi, a senior advisor to Quds commander Qasem Soleimani.