As Kurdish nationalism rises, the voice of Iraq’s Turkmen shrinks
London- \"A blazing fire may soon burn,” warned the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), Arshad al-Salihi, about the potential political fallout from Kurdish secession.
“Impossible,” Salihi said on Dijlah TV, “for any Turkman to forgo their right to Kirkuk. Even if you sever my head, my city will not be abandoned.”
The Kurds’ independence referendum lifted the lid of a Pandora’s box of problems in Iraq’s troubled north.
An oft-parroted argument by newsmakers colouring Kirkuk “predominantly and historically Kurdish” has accelerated the demise of the Turkmen voice. The Kurds’ demand of a right to self-determination has arguably eclipsed the voice and rights retained by other minorities.
Diagnosing September’s Kurdish referendum as a “step in the wrong direction,” Salihi said the risk of violence has returned to his native Kirkuk.
The happy ending Turkmen could have wished for came after military operations, led by Baghdad forces, ended, as Turkmen describe 14 years of Kurdish domination in Kirkuk.
Once home to the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company, Kirkuk houses rival power bases. The oil city’s status and identity since the Lausanne Peace Negotiations of 1923 have been in dispute but the twin problems since votes were cast September 25 have returned with ferocity.
Iraqi Turkmen have held Kirkuk as their nominal capital. For Kurds it represents what Jerusalem holds for Palestinians. The city’s Turkmen character, they say, has been hijacked through social engineering efforts by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials.
Fear is increasing as attacks against Turkmen politicians mount. It seems that the fluid identities that characterised Kirkuk as a city of co-existence are a thing of the past.
Oil, no doubt, is the commodity of interest that has invited the curiosity of outsiders. Less marketable are the horrors non-Kurdish Kirkukis have been subject to.
The 1949 Gavurbaghi and 1959 massacres, in which hundreds of Turkmen lost their lives, among others, barely receive a mention in the endnotes of Western scholarship.
Though Kirkuk is the hottest potato of all, other areas in question included in the referendum were Dohuk, Tal Afar, Mosul, Mandali and Khanaqin where Turkmen live.
While these towns form the boundaries of the Kurdish state KRG President Masoud Barzani and others dream of, minorities have for years complained of enforced Kurdification of areas once Arabised under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Depopulation of areas where the dominant historical footprint is Turkmani has been another strategy used to scrub away the demands of Turkmen. Depopulation would allow Kurds to claim it is the majority in areas where violence has been used to encourage non-Kurds to flee, as official reports verify.
Many who could relocate to Turkey have. Without a firm existence on the ground, however, the voice of what is known as Iraq’s third largest minority may be difficult to unmute.
Even before Barzani bulldozed his way to the referendum, Turkmen had been vocal in their opposition. Yet, the world has kept its back turned.
Even after Iraqi forces wrested control of northern territories, the situation was tallied as a victory for Baghdad and a defeat for Kurds.
Beyond a token mention, Turkmen joy and scepticism at the events have not become a central talking point.
“The pulse of the region,” Kirkuk, as Salihi described it, has been unsettled by these developments but it remains the beating heart of Iraq’s oil industry.
“Since the 1920s we have been left to our own fate. We did not see enough support,” Salihi told Turkish Manset 24 news.
Unlike the Kurds, Turkmen Iraqis have stood in favour of a united Iraq.
They have been involved in state politics both before and after the United States’ toppling of Saddam but do not share the burning desire to offer up Kirkuk to Kurdish statehood as vocalised by Kirkuk’s Kurds.
Fault lines, even among Turkmen have since emerged, in synchrony with the sectarian engineering of the post-2003 Iraqi state. As a result, sectarianism has pushed Sunni and Shia Turkmen apart.
Senior researcher Ahmad Mahmoud from the Iraqi opposition Foreign Relations Bureau (Iraq) used a business analogy to explain how a once cohesive community could become undone.
“You have sponsors from different markets looking for clients,” he said, “driving a wedge between communities to please clients” talking about the meddling of foreign powerhouses.
Turkey has long promoted an image of itself as the protector of Turkic peoples but it has to compete with its economic partner, Iran, which distinguishes itself as the Vatican of Shia communities. This emergent conflict, while slow burning, can erupt at any time as it did in Tuz Khormato.
Turkey does well to defend its brothers and sisters in Kirkuk rhetorically but practically it has been unable to reverse the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) territorial control over Kirkuk, whose alignment with Iran caused it to be viewed suspiciously.
Turkmen are also part of Iraq’s umbrella militia organisation, commanded by Abu Ridha al-Najjar and Mohammed al-Bayati. The Turkmen faction known as Hashed al- Turkmani is the only armed side but has not necessarily gained the approval of the wider Turkic community.
Baghdad’s gambit was widely celebrated by Turkmen but the fact that some Sunni Turkmen fled to Sulaimaniyah and Turkey never trickled into the mainstream media.
The more pressing concerns as voiced by ITF representatives have been focused on lifting the air embargo imposed by Baghdad. In an interview with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party-affiliated newspaper Yeni Akit, Salihi mentioned that his party issued a formal request for the reopening of Kirkuk airbase used not only by Kurds but Turkmen, too.
Salihi has also emphasised a plan of action dedicated to “coordination among all parties and non-governmental organisations in Kirkuk.” Turkmen have suggested Erbil as an administrative centre, in place of multiethnic Kirkuk. The final note sung by Iraq’s Turkmen has been a word of advice to the KRG: “Accept Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s conditions to minimise harm for the people.”
“There is a Turkman vision that we have previously proposed to UN representative Jan Kubis,” Salihi said. “We told him there is a problem between us and some of the factions in the KRG. From our side, as Turkmen, our suggestion is to form a delegation made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, under the auspices of the United Nations, that operates under the supervision of the Iraqi government in search of constitutional and legal solutions.”
The Turkmen are awaiting a response from Kubis while yo-yoing between Baghdad and Turkey for discussions. Turkmen have been protesting, flying their blue-and-white variant of the Republic of Turkey’s emblem but their voice has grown weaker as they struggle to rival Kurds in the international support their cause has won them.