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Iraq: Turkmen Look For Place In Any Post-Hussein Government

  • Bruce Pannier

The Turkmen of Iraq are preparing for change in their country. While the views of the Iraqi Turkmen toward war and a post-Saddam Hussein government coincide with other Iraqi opposition groups, the Turkmen position toward other issues, such as the entry of Turkish troops into northern Iraq, differs. RFE/RL takes a look at the Turkmen of Iraq.

Prague, 10 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Like everyone in Iraq, the Turkmen population is expecting great changes as the United States and Britain increase pressure on the regime of Saddam Hussein to disarm or be disarmed by force.

Iraq's Turkmen, sometimes called Turkomen, are generally Sunni Muslims, although there are claims that up to 40 percent of Iraq's Turkmen are Shi'ite Muslims. Sufism is also prevalent among the Turkmen of Iraq.

Turkmen are mainly a nomadic people, known for their prowess with horses. Depending on with whom one speaks, there are between 300,000 and 3 million Turkmen in Iraq.

Part of the reason for the vast difference in estimates is the Iraqi government's policy of the 1970s and 1980s that expelled Turkmen from their traditional lands in Iraq. They were resettled in other areas and encouraged to register officially as Arabs. Arabs were then resettled onto lands once belonging to Turkmen and Kurds after the latter two groups were forced out.

The Turkmen of Iraq today live mainly in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and the area around Diyala. The Turkmen and the Kurds still argue over Kirkuk, a city both claim as their own. However, Kirkuk is an exception in Turkmen-Kurdish relations, as the two groups long ago set a precedent of living in villages that were either exclusively Turkmen or Kurdish. There is also a sizable Turkmen population in Baghdad.

The Turkmen of Iraq are mainly merchants and manual laborers. Most are very poor.

Turkmen are related to today's Turks. In fact, they are the Turks' ancestors. Linguistically and culturally, the two people still strongly resemble one another.

The Turkmen were part of the wave of migrations from the area north of the Great Wall of China that started more than two millenniums ago. During many centuries of nomadic empires rising and falling, the ancestors of the Turkmen were pushed farther west, eventually settling in the area around the southern part of the Caspian Sea and the mountainous areas where Iraq, Iran, and Turkey all now meet.

Like other opposition groups in Iraq, the Iraqi Turkmen are trying to position themselves to play a role in any post-Hussein government. The Iraqi Turkmen have been represented at recent talks among Iraqi opposition groups. The Turkmen are represented by a group called the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), which is comprised of four Turkmen political parties: the Iraq National Turkmen Party, the Turkmen National Party, the Turkmen Independence Movement, and the Turkmen People's Foundation.

There are also 22 other Turkmen groups outside Iraq that participate in ITF work.

RFE/RL contacted Kemal Yayiji, the ITF's representative in Berlin, and Mustafa Ziya, the ITF's representative in Ankara, to ask them about the possibility of war in Iraq and the views of the Turkmen.

Yayiji said that, to the ITF, the goal of the United States, if it takes military action, is clear, and that the Turkmen stand to gain, along with the rest of the Iraqi people. "The target of America is clear. The main goal is for disarmament, to change the regime of a dictator and establish a democratic government in Iraq. We Turkmen want a democratic regime after the war, better human rights, and a parliamentary state. So we support military action," Yayiji said.

Ziya in Ankara, while holding out some hope for a peaceful resolution to the problems in Iraq, agreed with Yayiji.

The Kurds of northern Iraq do not object to a temporary U.S. presence but do not want any more Turkish troops to cross into the area. Here, the positions of the Kurds and the Turkmen differ.

Yayiji said Iraq's Turkmen have been waiting for the arrival of more Turkish troops. "All the time, we have been waiting for them [Turkish troops]. They are our guarantor. We are the same ethnicity, the same culture, and from a humanitarian point of view, we need support because we are poor," Yayiji said.

Ziya also said Iraqi Turkmen would welcome Turkish troops. "For 10 years, Turkish troops have been staying there [in northern Iraq]. They have helped us the whole time. Northern Iraq has been peaceful since Turkish troops came there. We do not oppose Turkish troops. We are sure they will help our people, help refugees," Ziya said.

Ziya went on to say the Iraqi Turkmen have no problems with their Kurdish neighbors, but he did seem to indicate the Iraqi Turkmen have differences with some Kurdish groups. "We do not want war with the Kurds because they are our brothers. But some from the Kurdish political parties -- extremist Kurdish groups -- are looking hungrily at our cities. In such cases, these parties are causing provocations between Turkmen and Kurds. We have no problem with the Kurds, but we cannot accept the views of some Kurdish political parties," Ziya said.

Ziya gave a description of the government he hopes to see should war come and should Hussein be toppled from power. "We wish for a democratic regime after Saddam. We hope that our voice will be heard and there will be freedom for all to speak. We want proportional representation, and after Saddam, we hope our representatives will be in the government," Ziya said.

Both Ziya and Yayiji are firm in voicing the support of Iraq's Turkmen for a possible U.S. military campaign, and both said Turkmen would help U.S. troops.

Asked if Turkmen would fight against Iraqi soldiers, Ziya said, "Not against Iraqi soldiers, against Saddam's soldiers."

(Arne Goli, Naz Nazar, and Guanch Guerayev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and David Newton and Kamran Al-Karadaghi of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service contributed to this report.)

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