Caught between Baghdad and Erbil: The Political Struggle of Iraqi Turkmans

Image Caption: A man in traditional Turkman clothing sits in Altun Kupri, a town near Kirkuk, Iraq.


In the summer of 2014, Arshad al-Salihi, head of the Iraqi Turkman Front, urged the Turkman community of Iraq to arm themselves and to resist the expansion of ISIS.[1] In December of 2015, Turkish forces crossed the Iraqi border claiming to fight terrorism and to protect the Turkman minority of Iraq establish their own base near the city of Bashiqa.[2] In September of 2017, the Iraqi Turkman Front (the main Turkman political party in Iraq) announced their decision to boycott the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum and declared their support of the territorial integrity of Iraq.[3]

These historical moments lead to the question: Who are the Iraqi Turkmans and what do they want?

Turkmans (also spelled Turkmens, Turcomans and Turkomens) are the third largest ethnic group of Iraq. They make up around 9-11% of Iraqi population and, according to Iraqi Ministry of Planning, approximately 3 million Turkmans live in Iraq.[4] Turkmans speak a southern dialect of the Azerbaijani language[5] (which is identified as “Turkman” under Section 1, Article 4 of the Iraqi constitution). They are geographically concentrated in the northern region of Iraq, from the border with Iran to the border with Syria (Mandali, Tuz Khurmatu, Kirkuk, Altinkopru, Erbil, Tal Keppe, Mosul, Tal Afar). There are also some Turkman communities in other major cities of Iraq (Baghdad, Basra).[6] Turkmans are largely Sunnis (60%) with a significant Shia minority (40%). [7]

While talking about the present day situation of Iraqi Turkman community, it’s crucial to refer to their past under the Baathist regime. The fate of Turkmans in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein doesn’t differ from the fate of other ethnic minorities (Kurds, Assyrian, Yazdis and Shabaks). In 1980, the Iraqi Military Intelligence adopted the directive of 1559, which was the beginning of “Arabization” policy of the Kirkuk province. Turkmans faced mass deportations from Kirkuk and some other cities. The names of Turkman towns and villages were changed to Arabic. The culture and language of Turkmans were banned and cases of discrimination against Turkman significantly increased.[8] [9] Subsequent censuses in 1967, 1977, and 1987 revealed a diminished number of Turkmans in the country, and the 1997 census allowed Iraqi citizens to identify only as Arabs or Kurds. [10]

The fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein meant significant improvement in the political well-being of Iraqi Turkmans. The new Iraqi constitution of 2005 guaranteed cultural autonomy to Iraqi Turkmans. The bans on language and culture of Turkmans were lifted. The Turkmans were given the right to receive education in Turkish (which is listed as “Turkman” in Iraqi constitution), Turkman political parties and movements, which operated underground during Baathist Iraq, acquired legal status.[11] The Turkman flag and other symbols were soon openly displayed in front of headquarters of different political organizations and movements.

The main political force to represent Turkman community of Iraq became the Iraqi Turkman Front, which was founded in 1995 as a result of the unification of different nationalist pro-Turkey political movements. The party is lead by a veteran Turkman politician Arshad al-Salehi. The party’s main goal was to achieve semi-autonomy for the territories populated by Turkmans —a territory which Turkmans call “Turkmen Eli” (land of Turkmans). That would mean  creating two different governorates in Turkman majority cities of Tal Afar and Tuz Khurmatu, but most importantly, achieving special status for Kirkuk. [12]

The province of Kirkuk became a point of contention for different ethnicities. Since 2003, the state of Kirkuk became the main internal political confrontation in Iraq. The city (as well as the province) is divided between four ethnicities: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmans and Assyrians. Due to the constant changing demographics of the province, all those ethnicities consider Kirkuk as “theirs.” During Ottoman times, the sanjak of Kirkuk had a Turkic majority. But with the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq and its eventual transformation to the Republic of Iraq, Arabs became the majority in Kirkuk. With the US invasion, Kurds took control of the city and they become majority in the region. Turkmans opposed the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish vision for autonomy and thus supported the central Iraqi government in its conflict with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).[13] It’s worth noting, however, that Turkman political parties challenge the current federal system in Iraq. Many Turkman politicians argue that current Iraqi constitution guarantees too much power to Kurdish autonomy and that the current political status of Kirkuk (which allows Kurdish political parties to dominate in city council) is unfair to the other ethnic communities of Kirkuk. Iraqi Turkmans consider Kirkuk as their “unofficial capital” and the Iraqi Turkmen Front has a special project for Kirkuk, which aims to transform Kirkuk into a “Turkman autonomous zone.”[14] The realization of this project, however, is very unlikely, since even with the most generous estimates Turkmans make up only third of city of Kirkuk.[15]

That being said, Turkman opposition to Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum derives from many factors. First of all, Kirkuk was included in the Independence referendum and, as previously mentioned, Turkmans supported central government in its confrontation with KRG. Secondly, the Turkman community had fears that creation of an independent hypothetical Kurdish state may make Turkmans a divided ethnicity. A large portion of Iraqi Turkmans live in Iraqi Kurdish cities like Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaimaniyah. Thirdly, Iraqi Turkmans have a history of confrontation with Kurds at least since the time of the British mandate. So, for the Iraqi Turkman Front, the question of Kurdish independence was also a matter of rivalry with Kurdish political parties.

Despite the fact that neither the central Iraqi government nor Kurdish Regional Government will allow creation of new autonomous zone for Turkmans in Iraq (the main demand of Turkman political parties), Iraqi Turkmans have achieved some of their initial goals. Since 2003, with the outbreak of violence in Iraq, Turkman politicians have stressed importance of creation of a Turkman militia, a demand which was initially denied by both Iraqi government and KRG.[17] However, with the expansion of IS further into Iraqi territory and takeover by IS the Turkman city of Tal Afar, the Iraqi government and KRG made concessions to the Turkmans. With direct Turkish military and financial support, the Iraqi Turkman Front’s military brigades were created. Moreover, the Turkman “Kirkuk Central Command” was established with an objective to secure Turkman neighborhoods in Kirkuk. Shia Turkmans formed their own brigades in the Popular Mobilization Forces (an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some largely Shia 40 militias). [18]

Another big problem for Iraqi Turkman was underrepresentation in Iraqi government departments.[19] Although Turkmans make around 10% Iraqi population, there were practically no Turkman politicians in the National Assembly (or in parliament during rule of Saddam Hussein). Although Iraqi Turkman Front was able to get 5 seats in Council of Representatives, it’s a small number, taking into consideration that there are 326 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Part of the problem is the geographical distribution of Iraqi Turkmans. Historically, they settled near trade roots, explaining why many cities in Iraq have Turkman communities, but very few have a Turkman majority.[20] One must not forget the deportation policies of Saddam Hussein either, which shaped the demographic map of the region. For this reason, it is very difficult for Turkman political parties to promote their candidates. However, there is a gradual improvement for Turkmans in Iraqi power structures. For example, the head of Iraqi Turkman Front, Arshad al-Salehi, was elected as chairman of the Iraq parliamentary Human Rights Committee,[21] and Turkman politician Abbas al-Bayati[22] (from the “State of Law” coalition) served as chairman of the Security Committee. Another Turkman politician, Jasim Mohamed Jafaar,[23] served in the Iraqi Transitional Government after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and was also appointed multiple times as minister in Nouri al-Maliki government.

In summary, it should be noted that although Turkmans support Iraqi government in its confrontation with KRG, Turkmans have their own political goals which they will try to achieve.


About the Author

Saleh Seyidli is a student of World Politics at Lomonosov Moscow State University who specializes in the Middle East. He has written multiple articles on Turkey, the Syrian Civil War, ISIS, and political Islam in the Balkans for Russian student journals.


Bibliography

Fehim Tastekin. “Iraqi Turkmen take up arms in Kirkuk.” Al-Monitor. June 19, 2014. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/originals/2014/06/tastekin-iraqi-turkmen-isis-kirkuk-mosul-arms-itf.html.

“Bashika Camp is an important element in combatting ISIS.” IRAQI TURKMEN FRONT – Bashika Camp is an important element in combatting ISIS. March 30, 2016. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.kerkuk.net/eng/?p=14794.

“Iraqi Turkmen parties urge boycott of Kurd region poll.” Anadolu Agency. September 09, 2017. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/iraqi-turkmen-parties-urge-boycott-of-kurd-region-poll/905546.

Wassim Bassem. “Iraq’s Turkmens call for independent province.” Al-Monitor. October 18, 2016. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/10/turkmens-iraq-mosul-tal-afar.html.

Postgate, J. N. Languages of Iraq: Ancient and Modern. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2007.

Anderson, Liam D.; Stansfield, Gareth R. V. (2009). Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise. University of Pennsylvania Press. p.56

Returning to Political Parties? Vol. Iraqi Turkmen Front. Beyrouth: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, 2010.

Jenkins, Gareth (2008), Turkey and Northern Iraq: An Overview (PDF), The Jamestown Foundation. p.15

International Crisis Group (2008), Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation?, Middle East Report N°81 –13 November 2008,

Joseph Ataman, and John Owen. “The Turkmen of Iraq: Between a rock and a hard place.” Middle East Eye. September 12, 2017. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkmen-iraq-between-rock-and-hard-place-1460749597.

Güçlü, Yücel (2007), Who Owns Kirkuk? The Turkoman Case (PDF), Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Govend Mistefa. ” Iraq Iraq’s Turkmen call for arms to join anti-ISIS war.” Rudaw.net. December 12, 2014. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/101220141.

Renad Mansour, Faleh A. Jabar, RENAD MANSOUR, and FALEH A. JABAR. “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future.” Carnegie Middle East Center. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/04/28/popular-mobilization-forces-and-iraq-s-future-pub-68810.

“Iraqi Turkmen continue to protest lack of govt posts.” Anadolu Agency. June 22, 2015. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://aa.com.tr/en/politics/iraqi-turkmen-continue-to-protest-lack-of-govt-posts/7628.

Hussein, Ahmed. “Salihi nominated as head of HR Parliamentary Committee.” Iraqi News. November 30, -0001. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.iraqinews.com/baghdad-politics/salihi-nominated-as-head-of-hr-parliamentary-committee/.

“12 wounded in mortar barrage on ethnically-mixed city in central Iraq.” 12 wounded in mortar barrage on ethnically-mixed city in central Iraq – Xinhua | English.news.cn. January 01, 2018. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/08/c_136880479.htm.

Ali Makram Ghareeb. “Kurdish Referendum Augurs Ill for Iraq: Turkmen Leader.” Anadolu Agency, Anadolu Agency, 30 July 2017, aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/kurdish-referendum-augurs-ill-for-iraq-turkmen-leader/872557.

Al-Hirmizi, Ershad (2003), The Turkmen And Iraqi Homeland (PDF), Kerkuk Vakfi


Endnotes

[1] Fehim Tastekin. “Iraqi Turkmen take up arms in Kirkuk.” Al-Monitor. June 19, 2014. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/originals/2014/06/tastekin-iraqi-turkmen-isis-kirkuk-mosul-arms-itf.html.

[2] “Bashika Camp is an important element in combatting ISIS.” IRAQI TURKMEN FRONT – Bashika Camp is an important element in combatting ISIS. March 30, 2016. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.kerkuk.net/eng/?p=14794.

[3] “Iraqi Turkmen parties urge boycott of Kurd region poll.” Anadolu Agency. September 09, 2017. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/iraqi-turkmen-parties-urge-boycott-of-kurd-region-poll/905546.

[4] Wassim Bassem. “Iraq’s Turkmens call for independent province.” Al-Monitor. October 18, 2016. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/10/turkmens-iraq-mosul-tal-afar.html.

[5] Postgate, J. N. Languages of Iraq: Ancient and Modern. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2007. p.167

[6] Anderson, Liam D.; Stansfield, Gareth R. V. (2009). Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise. University of Pennsylvania Press. p.56

[7] Returning to Political Parties? Vol. Iraqi Turkmen Front. Beyrouth: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, 2010.

[8] Jenkins, Gareth (2008), Turkey and Northern Iraq: An Overview (PDF), The Jamestown Foundation. p.15

[9] Anderson, Liam D.; Stansfield, Gareth R. V. (2009). Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise. University of Pennsylvania Press. p.65

[10] International Crisis Group (2008), Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation?, Middle East Report N°81 –13 November 2008, p 16.

[11] Joseph Ataman, and John Owen. “The Turkmen of Iraq: Between a rock and a hard place.” Middle East Eye. September 12, 2017. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkmen-iraq-between-rock-and-hard-place-1460749597.

[12] Returning to Political Parties? Vol. Iraqi Turkmen Front. Beyrouth: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, 2010.

[13] Güçlü, Yücel (2007), Who Owns Kirkuk? The Turkoman Case (PDF), Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007.

[14] Returning to Political Parties? Vol. Iraqi Turkmen Front. Beyrouth: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, 2010

[15] Joseph Ataman, and John Owen. “The Turkmen of Iraq: Between a rock and a hard place.” Middle East Eye. September 12, 2017. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkmen-iraq-between-rock-and-hard-place-1460749597.

[16] Ali Makram Ghareeb. “Kurdish Referendum Augurs Ill for Iraq: Turkmen Leader.” Anadolu Agency, Anadolu Agency, 30 July 2017, aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/kurdish-referendum-augurs-ill-for-iraq-turkmen-leader/872557.

[17] Govend Mistefa. ” Iraq Iraq’s Turkmen call for arms to join anti-ISIS war.” Rudaw.net. December 12, 2014. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/101220141.

[18] Renad Mansour, Faleh A. Jabar, RENAD MANSOUR, and FALEH A. JABAR. “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future.” Carnegie Middle East Center. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/04/28/popular-mobilization-forces-and-iraq-s-future-pub-68810.

[19] “Iraqi Turkmen continue to protest lack of govt posts.” Anadolu Agency. June 22, 2015. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://aa.com.tr/en/politics/iraqi-turkmen-continue-to-protest-lack-of-govt-posts/7628.

[20] Al-Hirmizi, Ershad (2003), The Turkmen And Iraqi Homeland (PDF), Kerkuk Vakfi

[21] Hussein, Ahmed. “Salihi nominated as head of HR Parliamentary Committee.” Iraqi News. November 30, -0001. Accessed February 01, 2018. https://www.iraqinews.com/baghdad-politics/salihi-nominated-as-head-of-hr-parliamentary-committee/.

[22] “Iraqi Turkmen continue to protest lack of govt posts.” Anadolu Agency. June 22, 2015. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://aa.com.tr/en/politics/iraqi-turkmen-continue-to-protest-lack-of-govt-posts/7628.

[23] “12 wounded in mortar barrage on ethnically-mixed city in central Iraq.” 12 wounded in mortar barrage on ethnically-mixed city in central Iraq – Xinhua | English.news.cn. January 01, 2018. Accessed February 01, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/08/c_136880479.htm.

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