As Kurdish nationalism rises, the voice of Iraq’s Turkmen shrinks

Sunday 19/11/2017
A Turkmen flag flutters in central Kirkuk on the eve of the independence referendum for the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, on September 24. (AFP)

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.