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Iraq: Worried By Kurdish Ambitions, Turkomans Seek Greater Recognition

  • Nikola Krastev --> Iraqi Kurds have long sought to make the northern city Kirkuk the capital of an independent Kurdistan. It's a goal that has raised fears among the more than 3 million Turkomans living in northern Iraq. Turkomans have been a significant presence in the region for 1,000 years. But they have been largely ignored by the U.S.-led coalition and the interim government in Baghdad in the planning of Iraq's future. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev attended a recent conference at New York's Columbia University looking at the Turkomans' hopes for a democratic and multiethnic Iraq.

New York, 30 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The main speaker at last week's conference was Scott Taylor, a Canadian journalist who has written extensively on Iraq. His latest work is "Among The 'Others': Encounters With The Forgotten Turkmen Of Iraq."

Taylor says that, for many in the West, the history of Iraq's Turkomans is largely unknown.

"These people inside Iraq have been indigenous for either 1,200 years or 700 years, [depending on] whichever migration you want to pin it on," Taylor said. "[They have been] kind of a major part of the Iraqi landscape, and we never hear about them. There is a lot of confusion: Turkmens come from Turkmenistan, but then also Uzbeks speak Turkish and they are part of the same Turkic tribes that came out of Central Asia. So it is a huge band of people which, particularly in Canada, no one really understands until you start looking into it and realize you can cover basically from Istanbul to Kabul."

The conference was organized by an influential group of Turkish-American professionals seeking to counterbalance the rising influence of the Kurds in Iraq.

They fear the Kurdish aspiration for an independent state will lead to uprisings in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, which all have sizeable Kurdish populations.

Within Iraq, Taylor says, many Turkomans are worried the creation of an independent Kurdish state will make them an embattled minority in an area that has been their home for hundreds of years.

But at the same time, he says, Turkomans have largely failed to defend their historic claims in Kirkuk and elsewhere in Northern Iraq. He says what Turkomans need is political unity.

"There are so many groups, so many factions," Taylor said. "Even the Iraqi Turkoman Front -- which is the main group, sort of the solid political front -- they are splintered. They have 14-15 different organizations, each with their own leader. They have one overall leader. There are Turkoman groups that are sponsored by [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader] Jalal Talabani which work in opposition to these guys; they are sponsored by the Kurds. There are links at different levels; there is no one cohesive [unifying element]."
Many Turkomans are worried the creation of an independent Kurdish state will make them an embattled minority in an area that has been their home for hundreds of years.

Ali Kocak, president of the Society of Turkish-American Architects, Engineers, and Scientists, the group sponsoring the Columbia University conference, told RFE/RL that the Kurdish goal of politically dividing Iraq along ethnic lines is unacceptable for Turkomans.

"Turkomans are not against any other ethnic group," Kocak said. "The Turkomans are against only the ones who are trying to divide their country. So Turkomans are looking for a united, democratic Iraq, and Kirkuk should be the symbol of the united and democratic Iraq."

A Kirkuk native, Mahir Nakip, says the hostility between Iraqi Kurds and Turkomans is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nakip -- the former president of a group called the Iraqi Turks Culture and Benevolence Association -- says ethnic questions are not at the heart of the debate. The issue, he says, is all about Kirkuk's oil wealth.

"Kurdish people are claiming that Kirkuk is a city in Kurdistan," Nakip said. "There is not any evidence to show this reality. They are fighting for oil, not for the city. They are insisting on Kirkuk because they have been trying to occupy Kirkuk since the 1950s. We are sure that they will not declare their Kurdish state until Kirkuk is included in this area."

Ethnically and culturally, Iraqi Turkomans are close to both Azeris and Turkmens in Turkmenistan. Baku and Ashgabat have both voiced support for Iraqi Turkomans, but Nakip says neither has been willing to get politically involved.

"They want to deal with us culturally and educationally, but not politically," Nakip said. "We visited [the late president of Azerbaijan] Heidar Aliyev; we visited Turkmenbashi [Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov). All of them [sympathize] with us. They want to support us. They want to solve our problem, but not politically -- culturally or educationally."

Nakip says that in 2002, President Niyazov offered scholarships for Iraqi Turkomans to study in Turkmenistan, and also pledged to finance historical and archeological research in Kirkuk.

Former President Aliyev had promised to raise the Turkomans' concerns with the U.S. ambassador in Azerbaijan, but died shortly thereafter.