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Turkish official: Iraq forces minister's plane to turn around

By Ivan Watson, CNN
December 5, 2012 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Turkey's energy minister was denied permission by Iraq to fly to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Turkey's energy minister was denied permission by Iraq to fly to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Turkish energy minister was on his way to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq
  • A Turkish official says the minister's plane was forced to turn around in midair
  • The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between Ankara and Baghdad

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Istanbul (CNN) -- The Iraqi government in Baghdad denied permission Tuesday for Turkey's energy minister to fly to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

A Turkish foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to government protocol, confirmed to CNN reports that Energy Minister Taner Yildiz' plane was forced to turn around in midair.

"We had applied for flight permits. We were issued one, and the plane was on the move," the Turkish diplomat said. "But in the meantime we were notified by the Iraqis that they have banned all VIP flights to Northern Iraq."

Iraqi government officials were not immediately available to comment on the aborted flight.

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Yildiz was flying to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The apparent ban on his flight comes at a time of heightened tension between Ankara and Baghdad.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iraqi counterpart, Nuri al-Maliki, have engaged in a public war of words, accusing each other of pushing their respective countries towards civil war.

For months, Turkey has also offered sanctuary to Iraq's fugitive vice president, Tarek al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court for murder.

And last August, the Iraqi central government loudly objected after Turkey's foreign minister made a short visit from Iraqi Kurdistan to the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, apparently without Baghdad's permission.

Iraqi Kurds have witnessed a remarkable reversal over the last decade, as Turkey has gone from being a major adversary to being one of the Kurdistan Regional Government's largest trading partners.

"To ensure access to Kurdish oil and gas, Turkey has eased its trade, economic, diplomatic relations with the KRG. Even in some cases, it has acted as the protector of the Kurds in Northern Iraq," wrote Yerevan Saeed, an Iraqi Kurdish energy security analyst at Tufts University.

"This has made both Baghdad and Tehran angry, and they have been trying to limit Turkish influence," Saeed added, referring to Iran, another regional player that is seen by many observers as one of the chief patrons of the Baghdad government.

The intrigues in Iraq have been complicated by the fact that relations are also deteriorating between al-Maliki's government and the Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been at odds for years over who has final authority over Iraq's vast oil wealth.

In recent weeks, that tension has flared around Kirkuk. Last month, Iraqi Kurdistan deployed troops and tanks to cement the Kurds' claim over the strategic city. The Kurdish forces have been engaged in a tense standoff with units of the Iraqi Army, which were recently deployed to areas near Kirkuk.

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