Wander through Kirkuk city today and the presence of the large Turkmen population is very visible. Ever since they began migrating to Iraq following the Islamic conquest of parts of north-east Asia (Turkmenistan),
Saeed Al-Bayyati, the owner of a cloth shop in al-Jumhouriya street says that Turkmen are “traders, fathers like sons.” Inviting us to stroll down Kirkuk’s main commercial streets shop names and banners are widely written in Turkmen. “They are not specialized in one kind of goods but they ‘control the market’”, said Saeed, telling jokes about rich Turkmen and their reputation for being frugal with their money. “They are not really tightfisted… but those who trade know that money brings money,” he said.
While Turkmen live beyond the disputed city of Kirkuk, the city constitutes their political centre and is known as the “heart of the Turkmen.” In February 1987, the British Inquiry magazine estimated the total number of Shiite and Sunni Turkmen across Iraq to stand at about half a million. But today there are no reliable statistics and the last official census accepted by the different ethnicities is over 50 years old. The 1957 census gave a figure of half a million Turkmen across all of Iraq, stating that they constituted the second largest group in Kirkuk after the Kurds. Iraqis are now waiting for the census which the government has said it will conduct in 2009 to determine the ratios of ethnicities and minorities including Turkmen in the “new Iraq.”
Today, Shiite Turkmen live in the cities of Mosul, Tall Afar and Toz Khirmatu in the province of Salahuddin and Taza district of Kirkuk province, while the majority of the Sunni Turkmen live in the district of Kifri in Diyala and in the city of Kirkuk. However, there are no sectarian sensitivities between Shiite and Sunni Turkmen on the social level with mixed marriages in Kirkuk a regular occurrence. According to a Turkmen school teacher “while Iraq witnessed a sectarian war, nobody heard of a Shiite Turkmen killing a Sunni Turkmen. This has given us the strength that we need now.”
However, this social cohesion is not reflected in Turkmen politics with both Sunni and Shiite parties in existence.
On the Shiite side, there are several parties linked to the United Shiite Iraqi Alliance, the largest Arab parliamentary bloc. But, Turkmen influence is limited and the biggest Shiite Turkmen party, the Islamic Union, only holds one out of the alliance’s total 128 parliamentary seats. In Kirkuk’s provincial elections, they only won one seat occupied by Tahseen Kihya.
On the Sunni side, things are different. Unlike the Shiites, the bloc pushes for strong relations with Turkey and opposes the Kurds. The Turkmen Front, founded in 1995 with direct support from Turkey, is the umbrella of several large parties including the Turkmen National Party and the Independent Turkmen Party and occupies eight seats in the provincial council. For many observers, the Sunni parties are more reflective of the real Turkmen position because the Shiite parties have to subjugate their views, especially on the issue of Kirkuk, to the view of the larger Iraqi Shiite Alliance.
Based on information from the last election, the Turkmen Front represents about 35% of the Turkmen in Kirkuk, a relatively low ratio considering the Front’s persistent efforts to strengthen its relations with the Turkmen population by helping the poor, distributing financial and food aid, providing health care and sending the most needy to hospitals in Turkey to receive health care at the party’s expense.
Finally, Turkmen parties within the Kurdish region represent a third trend within the Turkmen political spectrum. These parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Turkmen Union Party, the Brotherhood Party and the Shorouq Party - call for the annexation of Kirkuk to Iraqi Kurdistan and for that reason they do not have real representation in Kirkuk. Since 2003 these parties have kept a low profile but Turkmen parties based in Kirkuk call them “puppets” of Kurdish leaders and say they are being used to further the Kurdish agenda of securing control of Kirkuk.
The one common feature uniting these political parties is that none of them call for or aspire to Turkmen self-rule and none of them say that Kirkuk is absolutely a Turkmen city. Instead, they call for the joint administration of the city with Kurds and Arabs. There is also no doubt that a majority of the Turkmen oppose the potential annexation of the city to the Kurdish region.
While most of the Turkmen parties are keen to put their own ethnic flag - a white crescent moon – over their buildings, they do so on a flagpole shorter than that holding the Iraqi flag as a symbol of their respect for the central government.