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Erbil Isn’t Safe for Turks After All

Assassination of diplomat raises questions about safety in ‘secure’ border city as Turkey demands immediate apprehension of attackers

A Turkish diplomat’s assassination earlier this week in the center of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, has highlighted the tenuous situation in the city, tarnishing its image as a calm base for foreigners, journalists and international organizations during more than 10 years of fighting in Iraq.

Osman Kose, the Turkish deputy consul to the city, was among those killed by three unidentified gunmen while eating lunch at the popular HuQQabaz restaurant. In response, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin vowed on Twitter: “The necessary response will be given to those who committed this treacherous attack.”

The Kurdistan Presidency Council also strongly condemned the attack in a published statement, stressing that authorities had begun investigations to capture the assassins.

Turkey stated that it had joined efforts with Iraqi authorities and local officials in the Kurdistan region to arrest the attackers, promising they would receive an “appropriate response.”

Onur Erim, a former chief adviser to the mayor of Ankara, explained to The Media Line that the Erbil attack came as a shock, as the city is known to be one of the safest in the region under control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi national government.

“It is surprising that such an assassination can take place so freely [in] such a well-controlled city,” he said.

Erim said he believed that the nationalist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey has outlawed and, like the US and EU, considers to be a terrorist group, is likely responsible for the attack.

The PKK and Turkey have been locked in an almost four-decade-long military conflict along the southern Turkish border as its members continue to fight for Kurdish independence. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999. It is believed that the hard core of the current PKK leadership is based just over the border in Iraq.

Erim pointed out that Ankara embarked last month on Operation Claw, an anti-PKK military effort in the northern Iraqi mountains.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said its forces had “neutralized” 43 PKK members in what were mostly bombing, rocketing and artillery attacks. It also said its troops had destroyed over 50 explosive devices as well as caves and shelters used by PKK members, and captured weapons and ammunition.

Operation Claw will continue until “the last terrorist is neutralized,” according to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Erim told the Media Line that “Turkey seems to have a good working relationship with both the KRG and the Iraqi national government [although Ankara has] not been fully satisfied with their battle against PKK.” He further surmised that the Erbil attack might have been a warning to “Turkish businessmen investing in the region.”

In 2018, trade relations between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region generated about $10 billion in annual revenues. The two share border crossings in Iraq’s Duhok Province, including the crossings known as the Ibrahim Khalil International and Sarzeri Gates, which have helped strengthen both economic relations and tourism.

Erim said that if the KRG is able to quickly apprehend the perpetrators of Kose’s assassination, it would both placate the Turks and give validity to the KRG government’s credibility in the international arena.

However, Fadel Abu Raghif, an Iraqi security expert and analyst, stressed to The Media Line that the incident could have been criminal rather than politically motivated.

“This is the first incident of its kind,” Abu Raghif explained. “The Turks walk around freely and safely in Erbil. No one attacked them before.”

He claimed that the PKK was under severe constraints in Iraq’s Kurdish capital.

“They can’t even walk freely there,” he said.

Abu Raghif added that there were understandings between the Iraqi government, the KRG and the PKK that seek to limit the risk to strategic relations with Turkey.

“I don’t think the incident will affect the annual $16 billion worth of [overall] trade between Turkey and Iraq,” he said.

Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security expert, told The Media Line of indications that the attack might have been carried out by the PKK in response to the killing of PKK leaders during Operation Claw.

“It could be a revenge move following the killing of… the Iraqi Kurdish leader of the PKK, Diyar Gharib,” Hashimi said.

“The terrorist attack was carried out in the center of Erbil to embarrass the government of [KRG President Nechirvan] Barzani, who agrees with Turkey about needing to end the presence of the PKK in the northeast of Erbil,” he said.