Iraq’s Tuz Khurmatu: A town rich in history and conflict

Sunday 26/11/2017
Beleaguered town. A view of a street in the Iraqi town of Tuz Khurmatu. (Nermeen Mufti)

Tuz Khurmatu - The Turkmen residents of Tuz Khurmatu say their ancestors built the Iraqi town that they inhabit approximately 800 years ago. The area was among places whose history dates to the ancient Sumerian era.
The town is 70km south of Kirkuk and 180km north of Bagh­dad. It lies on the main route that links those cities, which gives Tuz Khurmatu a strategic importance. The town’s name is said to mean “salt and dates” in the Turkmen language. In addition to sitting on oil reserves, the area boasts of fer­tile farming land.
There were many stages that led to the Turkmen-majority town becoming ethnically mixed. In 1959, Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al- Karim Qasim opened a new neigh­bourhood called al-Jumhuriyah for Kurdish residents. In the late 1970s, the Iraqi government made the town, which was adminis­tered by Kirkuk, part of the newly formed Saladin province. That move increased the number of Arab residents.
After 2003, more Kurdish resi­dents moved into the town that has become among the disputed areas between Iraq’s central gov­ernment and the Kurdistan Re­gional Authority (KRG). Since then, ethnic tensions have result­ed in violence.
The latest incident of friction came after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the hand­ing over of control of the disputed territories from peshmerga fight­ers to Iraqi forces. Although the process was largely peaceful in the rest of the country, Tuz Khurmatu experienced clashes between the peshmerga and Iraqi government forces, supported by Turkmen units in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
“Within hours the lives of count­less men, women and children were devastated in Tuz Khurmatu. Thousands have lost their homes, shops and everything they owned. They are now scattered in nearby camps, villages and cities, won­dering whether they will ever be able to return,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director for Amnesty International.
“The Iraqi authorities already stated they would not tolerate at­tacks against civilians and would hold perpetrators accountable. They must now put word to action and promptly initiate impartial in­vestigations into these violations. Victims must receive full repara­tion and those responsible held to account,” Maalouf said.
The rights group said the targets of the recent attacks were predom­inately Kurdish but Turkmen resi­dents said they had been attacked first by the peshmerga.
A report by police officer Nid­ham Fadhil said armed Kurds fired mortars into Turkmen neighbour­hoods, killing ten people.
Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman for the Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC), said there have been “individual cas­es” of revenge attacks by locals against each other but there have been no systematic attacks by Ira­qi forces or the PMF.
Mohammed Koja, an adviser to the president of the Saladin Pro­visional Council, said members of his Turkmen community had been killed, kidnapped or had their houses bombed and burned over the last 14 years.
“[Kurdish] attempts to make de­mographic changes [in Tuz Khur­matu] became obvious in the first months of the occupation when the Kurds attacked and [damaged] Marsa Ali tomb,” which is revered by the Turkmen of the town, Koja said.
Turkmen residents alleged that Kurdish neighbourhoods receive better electricity and security ser­vices and accused the town’s may­or — a Kurd — of favouritism.
“Why do we have a Kurdish may­or when Turkmen candidates are the ones who win a majority in lo­cal elections? Although Tuz Khur­matu is linked administratively to Saladin province, the mayor deals with the KRG,” said Koja.
Arab residents also com­plained of discrimination against them by Kurdish authorities, al­though there have been clashes between Arab and Turkmen resi­dents too. In addition to ethnic differences, Tuz Khurmatu’s communities belong to different branches of Islam: The Turkmen are mainly Shias there while the Arabs and Kurds are predominate­ly Sunnis.
Community tensions aside, there were allegations that militants from Turkey’s out­lawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were involved in shelling Turkmen homes in Tuz Khurma­tu. Ali al-Hussainy, vice-chairman of the Tuz Khurmatu council, said his house was destroyed by mortars from the PKK and pesh­merga.
While Kurdish residents said they felt unsafe following the ex­pulsion of the peshmerga, their Turkmen counterparts said they had never felt safer. “For the first time in 14 years, we felt secure,” Qasim Awni, a writer, said.
While the Islamic-calendar month of Muharram is usually observed with signs of sadness by Shia Muslims over the death of the revered Imam Hussain, this year many Shia Turkmen were cel­ebrating in the town.
The Turkmen residents sang a song that is part of their heritage but modified its lyrics. Instead of the original “I do not know why the Tuz Mountains are sad,” they chanted: “The Tuz Mountains are happy.”