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Iraq: Will The Turkoman Split Break Turkish Interference?

Turkey has suggested in the past it had historical rights to oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul The Iraqi Turkoman Front broke up in late April in what appears to be an internal conflict over Turkey's influence on party decisions, which detractors have said has adversely affected the party's ability to gain ground on the Iraqi political scene. The Turkoman Front comprised six Turkoman political parties and reportedly received more than $300,000 per month in support from the Turkish government, which claims an ethnic kinship to Iraq's Turkomans.

Prague, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The meager performance of the Turkoman Front in January elections and the subsequent breakup of the Front may have little impact on Turkey's ability to influence politics in Iraq, and particularly on the future status of Kirkuk. While Turkey appears to have lost its base of support in Irbil, it remains well-entrenched in Turkoman politics in Kirkuk.
Turkey has routinely warned Kurdish parties against trying to change the demographic character of Kirkuk.

Critics of the Front claim that it was destined to fail because of its staunch policy of noncooperation with the Kurds, the majority ethnic group in Kirkuk, Mosul, and Iraqi Kurdistan, areas where much of the Turkoman population resides. That policy "drove [the Front] to the periphery, not only among the people of Kurdistan but also among the Turkomans themselves," claimed a 30 April commentary in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's daily, "Kurdistani Nuwe." The policy also "deprived the Turkomans of a number of political, cultural, and intellectual gains, which is considered a strategic loss for the Turkomans," it continued. Following the Front's relocation of its headquarters to Kirkuk after Operation Iraqi Freedom, "they preferred working and cooperating with remnants of the Ba'ath and Arab settlers [rather than] joining forces with the [Kurdish] people of Kirkuk," the commentary contended.

Turkish Aims Spark U.S. Concern

Turkish designs on Kirkuk were clear before the start of the war. Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis hinted in a January 2003 interview that Turkey had legitimate historical rights to oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 13 January 2003). While those claims were later dropped, Turkey has, in the past two years, routinely warned Kurdish parties against trying to change the demographic character of the city. Kurds have long contended that Kirkuk should be included in a federal Kurdistan, and the Turkish-funded Front served as a major voice of opposition to that goal. The Turkoman Front supported the claim that Kurds were driving Turkomans from Kirkuk, while other Turkoman groups said they faced no problems with their Kurdish neighbors in the city.

U.S. military officials in Kirkuk expressed concern over Turkey's meddling in local politics through the Turkoman Front as early as June 2003. Local residents told the "Cairo Times" that month that the Front was creating problems and fueling fears among locals that Kurds would come to dominate them. "It's a great concern to us," U.S. military spokesman Major Robert Gowen said of the Turkish involvement. One month later, 11 Turkish special forces and 13 others were detained in a U.S. raid in Al-Sulaymaniyah. U.S. forces found a large cache of weapons, explosives, and a map of Kirkuk identifying the interim governor's home during the raid. Among those detained was a Turkish colonel who had been expelled from Iraq by coalition forces on two previous occasions for "suspicious activities."

The Front's Steady Disintegration

The Front began unraveling this year following its poor performance in January elections, and particularly in the Kirkuk Governorate Council election, where Kurds won an overwhelming majority of seats. Abd al-Qadir Bazirgan, the Kurdish-leaning Turkomaneli Party leader and head of the Irbil office of the Turkoman Front, expressed regret for not aligning the Front with the Kurdish-led Kirkuk Brotherhood List, reportedly calling the decision a "tactical error" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 March 2005).

Since the election, the Front has aligned with some Arabs (both Sunnis and Shi'ites) in Kirkuk, and refused to take their seats as minority members of the governorate council. Arab and Turkoman council members stormed out of a 29 March meeting that was to elect a governor, deputy governor, and council head. Their actions, by some media accounts, have rendered the council ineffective.

The final split came during the Front's 22-24 April conference, the fourth such meeting for the party since its establishment in 1995. Bazirgan, along with others at the conference, objected to the actions of party leaders in Kirkuk, whom he accused of being Turkey's "plaything." Bazirgan told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in a 26 April interview that he decided to leave the Turkoman Front because of its "political and organizational instability," which he said "created a state of anarchy among its members." He contended that the Front "has become only a tool in the hands of a foreign party."

A 25 April statement issued by the by the Irbil Branch of the Turkoman Front described the defection of Bazirgan and others. "After the former regime's fall in 2003, the Iraqi Turkoman Front leadership moved to Kirkuk city. Since that time, the Front's policy has taken a course of relying upon instruction from abroad. These have gradually infiltrated into and affected the system of the Front's activities," RFI reported. The statement contended that some members of the Front "have been receiving instructions from particular centers of Turkish [political] forces" rather than developing their own political platform. A statement reportedly issued by the Turkoman Front after the conference blamed an unidentified group (implying the Kurds) for splitting the Front.

The Ethnicity Question

The split has prompted a debate in the media by Turkomans attempting to set the record straight on their ethnicity. Korjan Bayatli, a Turkoman writing in the 26 April issue of the KDP daily "Al-Ta'akhi," said that Iraqi Turkomans are the descendents of nomadic Turks from the Oghuz tribes. "We emigrated from Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and Bukhara in human waves and have settled in Iraq since the reign of Prophet Muhammad," he noted, adding: "We are the Turkomans of Iraq, and not the descendants of the Ottomans. We are not even descendants of the Turks of Turkey."

Leaders such as Bazirgan have already said that they are looking into forming a new umbrella group comprising the parties that left the Front. For its part, the remaining parties in the Front have said little about the split. The Turkish government has also not commented, but Bazirgan told the Irbil weekly "Govari Gulan" in an interview published on 1 May that he has received some "external threats." "They warned me that what I had done was not a good act."

It remains unclear whether the Kurdish administrations played any role in the breakup of the Front. But based on comments by Bazirgan, it appears likely that whatever group he forms will align itself closely with the Kurdish administrations. Although he has yet to meet directly with Kurdish representatives in Irbil, he told "Govari Gulan" that there are "indications" that the Kurdish parties will support his efforts to establish a new party, which he said will operate "within the framework of the Kurdistan region's law."

Asked his opinion on Kirkuk, he said: "While I was inside the Turkoman Front, I used to be reserved in speech. However, in fact, it is true that Kirkuk is a city in Iraq and Kurds and Turkomans live in it, but it is inside the geography of Kurdistan and is a Kurdistani city and it has to be Kurdistani."

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