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