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Kurdistan officials hope Iraq will allow Turkish minister in

By Ivan Watson and Mohammed Tawfeeq, CNN
updated 8:54 PM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
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.
  • Kurdish spokesman: "We hope it is only a technical issue and it will be resolved soon"
  • Energy Minister Taner Yildiz's plane was forced to turn around in mid-flight Tuesday
  • He was on his way to a conference in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq
  • The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between Ankara and Baghdad

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Istanbul (CNN) -- A Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman expressed hope Wednesday that only a temporary "technical issue" led the Iraqi government to deny permission for Turkey's energy minister to fly to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz's plane was forced to turn around in mid-flight Tuesday. He was in a private plane flying to Irbil, the Kurdistan region's capital, to attend a three-day conference on oil and gas.

"We had applied for flight permits. We were issued one, and the plane was on the move," said a Turkish foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to government protocol. "But in the meantime we were notified by the Iraqis that they have banned all VIP flights to Northern Iraq."

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But Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman Safeen Dizayee told CNN on Wednesday that officials there hope the denial was only temporary.

"There are new regulations by the central government for private planes to enter Iraqi airspace, and apparently energy minister's plane had not complied with the new regulations" Dizayee said.

"Iraqi airspaces are completely controlled by the central government. The cabin crew of the Turkish minister's plane was directly in touch with Baghdad to get permission and Kurdistan Regional Government has no control on it" he added.

"We hope it is only a technical issue and it will be resolved soon," he said.

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Iraqi government officials have not commented on the aborted flight.

The incident came 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 past 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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