ANKARA, Turkey: Iraq on Thursday accused Turkey of interfering in its internal affairs after Turkey's foreign minister paid a surprise visit to a northern Iraqi city seen as a testing ground for whether Iraq's sectarian leaders can ever reach reconciliation.
Ahmet Davutoglu visited the city of Kirkuk, where an estimated 850,000 Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs uneasily co-exist - and that Iraqi Kurds hope to annex into their autonomous region. Turkey, Iran and Syria have long feared that Kurdish rule of Kirkuk would encourage separatist sentiment within their Kurdish minorities.
Davutoglu said on his Twitter account on Thursday that he was "proud to be the first Turkish FM to visit Kirkuk in 75 years," adding that "Kirkuk will be a city where our Arab, Kurd and Turkomen brothers live in peace forever."
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website that Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk was "not appropriate" and an "interference in the internal affairs of Iraq." It warned that Turkey would "bear the consequences," which would negatively affect relations between the two neighbors.
Turkey's ties with Baghdad had already deteriorated after Turkey allowed Iraq's fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, to stay in Istanbul for medical reasons.
"It is not in the interest of Turkey or any other party to underestimate the national sovereignty" of Iraq, the statement said, adding that the visit was staged "without the knowledge and approval of the ministry."
Davutoglu is in northern Iraq as part of a visit in which he struck a rare deal with Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region to jointly tackle any threat from a violent group that exploits the power vacuum in Syria, an apparent reference to Turkish Kurdish rebels who are now operating in northern Syria.
Kurdish rebels have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast for the last 28 years, and Turkey is increasingly worried that the chaos in Syria will open up a new base for them.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry also chided the regional Kurdish administration for facilitating the visit without seeking the approval of Baghdad.
Turkey on Thursday staged a second military drill along the Syrian border across areas where the Kurdish rebels said to be operating. Turkey has repeatedly struck rebel bases in northern Iraq and threatened to retaliate against any attack by the rebels from Syria as it maintained its military drive against Kurdish rebels inside the country.
Turkey last week granted residence permit to al-Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, before his visa expired. Al-Hashemi is on trial in absentia in Baghdad on charges of supporting death squads whose targets included government officials and Shiite Muslim pilgrims.
Also last week, Turkey started importing crude oil from northern Iraq under a deal with the Iraqi Kurdish administration. Turkey separately imports oil from Iraq through a twin-pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean oil terminal of Ceyhan.