As one of Iraq’s smaller ethnic groups, local Turkmen must work hard to make their voices heard at a national level. Nonetheless in northern provinces like Kirkuk, the Turkmen are a more important political voice. In some smaller areas in northern Iraq, the group - who mostly feel closer to those of Turkish ethnicity and who are both Shiite and Sunni Muslim in terms of their sectarian allegiances - make up a majority of the population.
In Kirkuk, the Turkmen are represented by the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which is comprised of six Turkmen political parties. In an interview with NIQASH, Ali Mahdi, the spokesperson for the Turkmen Front, spoke about the group’s aims after the extremist group known as the Islamic State has been driven out of the northern province. Even though the Iraqi Kurdish military, from the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, are in charge of security in parts of the province, and even though the Kurdish believe that Kirkuk should be part of their region, the Turkmen disagree. They say that they want to see Kirkuk become its own semi-autonomous region where responsibilities are equally shared between all of the different ethnic and religious groups there.
Mahdi discussed how this might happen, what kind of support his people are requesting from Turkey around the issue and his thoughts on the Kurdish flag being raised over official buildings in Kirkuk recently. The governor of Kirkuk, an Iraqi Kurdish politician, raised the Kurdish flag at the end of March this year, sparking protests by local Turkmens as well as debate in the federal Parliament in Baghdad.
The governor of Kirkuk should serve all of the ethnicities and groups that live in Kirkuk but he has failed.
NIQASH: In many of your recent press statements you have talked about the country’s Turkmen being “targeted” over the past few months. What exactly do you mean by this?
Ali Mahdi: Iraq’s Turkmen have not only been targeted physically – and especially in Kirkuk over the past six months – but they have been political targets ever since 2003. They are paying a high price for their political views.
There are parties and groups in Kirkuk that want to annex the city and make it part of Iraqi Kurdistan. We are against this. We would prefer to see Kirkuk become its own region. Our current plans are to return the city back to normal and to allow the return of all those who were displaced. But these plans don’t seem to be acceptable: Only Kurds are being allowed to return. Millions of acres of land belonging to Turkmen people have been taken and not returned. This is because the central government is weak and it has a bad relationship with Kirkuk’s provincial government.
NIQASH: And you believe your group has a solution?
Mahdi: First, we believe that all of Kirkuk should be protected against terrorism. The police and army should be reformed to reflect the make-up of the population here – so 32 percent should be Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab and 4 percent should be Christians. We have discussed this previously. But there is a dictatorship mentality here that rejects this idea.
NIQASH: You’re not talking about the Iraqi Kurdish military though – the forces known as the Peshmerga? After all the local authorities say that Kirkuk is under the control of the Peshmerga.
Mahdi: Security in Kirkuk should be managed in a cooperative way. But even the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties here – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party can’t agree on this.
NIQASH: But they can agree that their forces should stay in Kirkuk.
Mahdi: Each military force has its own specific mission and its limits. Their task is to guard Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk is a disputed territory and is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: It seems that Turkmen groups would like to make the areas of Tal Afar and Tuz Khurmatu into provinces, that will then become a part of a planned “Turkmen” region. Is this true?
Mahdi: Each ethnic group has its own ambitions and we’ve been working on making Kirkuk a separate region for around a decade now. That is the dream of Iraq’s Turkmen – that we can rule ourselves, according to the Iraqi Constitution, which gives us the right to form regions and change districts into provinces. It’s the same dream that Iraq’s Kurds have for their region and that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have for a region of their own.
NIQASH: But don’t you think creating a special region for Turkmen is going to cause trouble between Sunni Muslim Turkmen and Shiite Muslim Turkmen?
Mahdi: There are both Sunnis and Shiites involved in the leadership of the Turkmen Front and of the Kirkuk provincial council. We live side by side and when we competed in the elections, we included both sects. But there are certainly parties in this country that would like to see sectarian conflicts break out between the Turkmen, the same kinds of conflicts that have led Iraq into the current dangerous situation it is in.
NIQASH: In fact, as a disputed territory where Kirkuk belongs should be decided by Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which says that a referendum should be held so that the local population can decide whether they want to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan or not. But nobody has ever made Article 140 work. Whose fault is that, in your opinion?
Mahdi: All of us - regardless of our ethnic or religious affiliations – are responsible for that. I believe that if Article 140 was used, the decision would benefit the Turkmen and the Kurds here. However, our Kurdish brothers seem to believe that Article 140 should only serve their interests.
NIQASH: When the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Iraq recently, the Turkmen Front met with him. What was the reason for the meeting?
Mahdi: There is no denying that, more than all other groups in Iraq, the Turkmen are supported by Turkey. We are part of the Turkish people. And we have always called upon them to play a role in developments taking place here. We asked Turkey to assist us in the same way that they have assisted in Erbil [the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan]. Before 2003, Erbil was not the same place it is today. Now it has seen prosperity and development, with Turkey’s support. That was the substance of the meeting.
NIQASH: So, did you broach the subject of whether the Turkish have supported the extremist group known as the Islamic State in any way? After all many people in Kirkuk seem to believe this.
Mahdi: The Turkish army has made sacrifices in the war against the Islamic State group. And in fact, the extremists are responsible for many crimes inside Turkey itself. How could the Turkish be accused of supporting the Islamic State?
NIQASH: How do you describe your relations with Iraqi Kurdish political parties in Kirkuk at the moment?
Mahdi: Bad. We have been trying to work together for years but the Kurdish parties don’t respect that. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the worst – they do not seem to believe in our shared background.
NIQASH: Yes, you don’t seem to have a very good relationship with Kirkuk's governor, Najmuddin Karim – a member of that party – either.
Mahdi: It’s true. We can’t hide that. The governor of Kirkuk should serve all of the ethnicities and groups that live in Kirkuk but he has failed – especially when he raised the Kurdish flag over the city. He should have consulted with us in the same way he consulted with the Arabs of the city. When we found out about it we asked the governor to postpone this action but he didn’t listen to us.