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Iraq: Turkomans Say Kirkuk's Growing Kurdish Population A Threat

  • Valentinas Mite

Turkomans and Kurds make up the two largest ethnic communities in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Both groups faced severe discrimination under the former regime. Now they are squaring off against each other in a battle for influence over the strategically important city.

Kirkuk, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � Turkomans and Kurds in Kirkuk accuse each other of seeking to dominate the oil-rich city. But it is virtually impossible to know for certain who outnumbers whom.

Turkomans claim they make up some 70 percent of Kirkuk's population. Kurds slice that figure down to 23 percent, saying that they are in the majority.

Both groups suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime. But the shared ordeal has seemingly done little to warm relations between the two groups now that the city �- and control of its 900,000-barrel-a-day potential �- are at stake.

Faruk Abdullah Abdulrahman is a leading member of the Turkoman Front of Iraq, a political group representing the country's ethnic Turkomans. Speaking with RFE/RL at the group's headquarters in Kirkuk, Abdulrahman says Hussein did not recognize Turkomans as an ethnic minority, and unleashed a flow of Arab settlers to the city, displacing many Turkomans and Kurds in an attempt to upset the city's traditional ethnic balance.

Now, Abdulrahman says, Turkomans are returning to Kirkuk and are seeking to gain minority recognition. But he says he fears the process will be upset by an influx of Kurds looking to dominate the city. "We are trying to get our rights in legal ways," he said. "We don't want the same thing that happened in the past to happen again. There was a campaign of Arabization under way, and now the same might happen under another name -� the 'Kurdization' of the region."

There are no reliable figures on Iraq's Turkic community. Depending on estimates, Turkomans are said to number between 300,000 and 2 million, mainly concentrated around Mosul, Kirkuk, and Irbil. They are seeking to have their presence felt not only in the north, but in Baghdad, and took a step toward that goal with the appointment of Turkoman Sungul Chabuk to the Iraqi Governing Council.

Still, they are at a disadvantage from the Kurds, which number between 4 million and 6 million and have greater representation on the Governing Council. Hostilities between the two ethnic groups boiled over in August, when the bombing of a Turkoman Shi'a shrine sparked a riot in the northern city of Tuz Khurmatu before spreading to Kirkuk. Some 12 people were killed in two days of fighting, with Turkomans blaming Kurds for the blast.

Abdulrahman said Kurds throughout northern Iraq are resettling in Kirkuk with the aim of establishing a "Kurdish majority." The Turkoman leader described as "brothers" those Kurds who are native to Kirkuk -- but the feelings of kinship only go so far. "If [the Kurds coming back to Kirkuk] are from this region, we welcome them, because they are like us. They were expelled from this place -- Kirkuk," he said. "But we do not accept bringing Kurds from different regions and housing them in Kirkuk and imposing them as a rule."

Abdulrahman says he has no figures to prove his claim of Kurdish immigration, but he says the signs of an increased Kurdish presence are visible everywhere in the city -� Kurdish flags and symbols and signs written in the Kurdish language. "This cannot create stability in the region if this trend continues," he said.

The Kurds in Kirkuk see things a little differently. At the Kirkuk headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of Iraq's largest Kurdish parties, a map on the wall shows both Kirkuk and the second key city of Mosul as part of Kurdistan.

Jalal Jowhar is one of the PUK leaders in Kirkuk. He dismisses Abdulrahman's claim of "Kurdization." He says the Kurds who were expelled from Kirkuk by the former regime are simply returning home -� and "there is no reason to stop them."

He added: "The numbers of those Kurds expelled from Kirkuk by the former Iraqi government were between 250,000 and 300,000, and those who are coming back now are originally from Kirkuk. Those who are coming back from Irbil and Sulaymaniyah have their origins in Kirkuk and were expelled by the former Iraqi government."

Jowhar says the tensions between Kurds and Turkomans in Kirkuk are not as serious as people like Abdulrahman describe. He said the two groups have enjoyed the same rights and freedoms �- political parties, a TV station, newspapers, and schools -� since 1991, when the Kurds were granted their autonomous government.

If there is trouble stirring between Kurds and Turkomans, Jowhar says, it is because other countries want it that way. "I don't feel any tension between the Turkomans and the Kurds," he said. "Foreign hands are creating this friction and this tension."

Jowhar does not elaborate, but makes it clear the "foreign hands" he describes are those of Turkey. Ankara makes no secret of its desire to see the Turkomans gain greater political influence, in order to counterbalance the region's Kurds and contain growing restiveness in its own Kurdish provinces.

Turkey has long sought to deploy troops to northern Iraq as part of the coalition forces. But its hopes were dashed when the Iraqi Governing Council's voiced its staunch opposition to a Turkish deployment.

Abdulrahman said Turkomans are "not ashamed" of the support they receive from Turkey and other Turkic-speaking countries like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. But still, he said, "we insist that we are Iraqis and we insist that we are a part of this country."