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Iraq Report: May 9, 2005

9 May 2005, Volume 8, Number 15
WILL THE TURKOMAN SPLIT END TURKISH INTERFERENCE IN IRAQ? 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.

The meager performance of the Turkoman Front in the 30 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.

Critics of the Turkoman 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. Then 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 have not been reissued, 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 Turkoman 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 Turkoman 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 Turkoman 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 Turkoman 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 Turkoman 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 (RFI) 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 Turkoman 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 same day. The statement contended that some members of the Turkoman 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 Kurdistan Democratic Party's 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 the 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 Turkoman 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 Turkoman 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." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDISH GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL TALKS TO RFE/RL. RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo interviewed the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) representative to the United Kingdom, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, on 4 May, in response to an article on corruption in Kurdistan in "RFE/RL Iraq Report" on 2 May. Excerpts from the interview follow:

RFE/RL: When we're talking about corruption in the there any mechanism in place [to hold officials accountable for their actions]?

ABDUL RAHMAN: There are mechanisms in place in the sense that there are laws for example, there are laws that govern how the media is run, trade unions, political parties. There are laws that protect the rights of minorities, the freedom of expression. So, there are all these laws that govern different aspects of the system and daily life, if you like, in the Kurdistan region. These laws together can be said to be holding the government accountable.

RFE/RL: But in practice, are they enforced? Has there been any prosecution of government of government officials for example, over issues of corruption?

ABDUL RAHMAN: I don't know if there have been specific prosecutions of government officials over corruption, per se. It depends on what you mean by corruption. People use this word all the time. If you mean corruption generally to mean using your post or power for personal gain, there have been prosecutions in Kurdistan for people breaking the law, yes.

RFE/RL: And those were government officials?

ABDUL RAHMAN: Among them, yes. But you know, there are people in all walks of life who are prosecuted for breaking the law.... There is corruption in the Middle East generally, and the Middle East unfortunately isn't alone in that either. But one thing I would say is that the perception of corruption is probably far worse than the rate of corruption itself. That in itself is a problem...perhaps the message isn't really getting through to people that we are doing these things. I think that's probably where we really have failed. We need to be much stronger and much clearer in delivering the message that we are coming down on corruption and that we are stamping it out.

RFE/RL: One of the criticisms we often hear from people in Kurdistan is that if they are not part of a party, then they have very little room as far as opening a business or establishing an NGO. And they say without party membership, they cannot navigate through the bureaucracy of the Kurdish administrations.... They feel like they can't move forward or undertake any kind of entrepreneurial enterprise unless they are a member of a party.

ABDUL RAHMAN: That's really not the case. Kurdistan does give plenty of room for people with independent views to speak. For example, in the Kurdistan National Assembly, there are many members of parliament who are independent, who don't belong to any political party. We have a media, which admittedly is run mainly by the two political parties [the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)] but we [also] have some elements of an independent media and that's growing. There are NGOs. Again, many of them have been set up with the help of the Kurdistan government or with the help of members of political parties. But these things need years to develop. Kurdistan is a democracy that's been running since 1992 when we had our first democratic elections...but 1992, that's actually not that long ago when you compare it with democracy in Britain, which has been thriving for quite a few centuries. It will take time for these NGOs, for the media, for these organizations to become emboldened and to really take the bull by the horns.

RFE/RL: If we set 1992 as a [starting point], that's 13 years. Civil-society development is one of the first markers of [democratic] development in any country. And to say after 13 years, "Well, there's still no independent NGOs, for example, operating in Kurdistan," I would say that's a setback [to development] or that is a problem.

ABDUL RAHMAN: I'm not sure that there are no independent NGOs operating in Kurdistan. There are some independent NGOs. But the majority have been helped by the government or by one of the political parties. That's one point. Secondly, the Kurdistan Regional Government is very aware of the fact that the democracy that we have is a fledgling democracy, and we never pretend that it's a perfect democracy. Part of the policy of the Kurdistan Regional Government is capacity building. That means building people's ability to run NGOs, to join trade unions, to have an independent media. Part of the democratization process is to build the capacity of our people, to build their skills, and training. Because of that, or as part of that strategy, the Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to develop relationships with organizations in Europe, in the United States, in other countries around the Middle East that have a democracy in place.

For example, we recently had a group of British trade unions come to Kurdistan. They were helped in their visit to Kurdistan by the Kurdistan Regional Government, [which] organized the entire tour for them, allowed them to meet whoever they wanted to meet.... So, the Kurdistan Regional Government is very aware of the need to progress, to deepen the fledgling democracy that we have, and we're doing our best.

RFE/RL: So you would deny that if there's an independent Kurdish individual who wants to [avoid] any political affiliation and start a civil-society organization, they will have a problem in doing so?

ABDUL RAHMAN: If they come up with a coherent plan. One of the problems that we have is that many people come up with ideas, whether it's a business idea, whether its an idea for establishing an NGO, but their idea might not be as mature as it should be, not as developed as it should be, so they don't get the help that they want.

RFE/RL: But is it the government's place?

ABDUL RAHMAN: The immediate reaction is that "We're not being helped because we don't belong to a political party. We're not being helped, because I'm not so-and-so's cousin, or uncle."

RFE/RL: But do you think that it's the government's place to step in and say that this person who wants to establish a civil-society organization is [qualified] or not to do so.... Is it really the government's place to interfere in an enterprise?

ABDUL RAHMAN: I agree with you...and it's part of the Kurdistan Regional Government's policy to have free enterprise and to encourage these organizations that will help establish, and not only establish but deepen the roots of democracy in Kurdistan. This is our stated aim, and we are doing the best that we can. But if people are saying that they have not been helped or that they have had stumbling blocks in establishing an NGO, or an organization in Kurdistan, it may sometimes be just because their plans weren't mature enough, and maybe they need to think again....

RFE/RL: You mentioned the media in Kurdistan several times and I'm wondering if you can comment on the control over the media by the regional governments and in particular, the lack of dissent that we see in the Kurdish press.... We don't see a lot of dissent coming from inside Kurdistan, from local media.

ABDUL RAHMAN: First of all, I agree that perhaps the media based overseas are more critical of the parties or the government in Kurdistan. I think that this is due to two factors. One is the Kurdish diaspora...have been fortunate live in the West where they have been able to see a mature media, [from] living in democratic societies and they have learned from that and they're applying what they have learned to the situation in Kurdistan and that's why we have these websites that can be very, very, critical of the Kurdish parties and the Kurdish system. And there is no problem with that. We have absolutely no problem with that in Kurdistan.

The second point I would like to make regarding that is many people in Kurdistan now have access to the Internet, so it's not the case that the Kurds of Iraq will only see the Kurdish media. Many Kurdish people, particularly young people, are very Internet savvy, and they will get onto these websites and they will read them, and they will read other websites, they will read the Arab, and Turkish, and Iranian-language websites as well....

RFE/RL: On the issue of dissent, when we speak with people inside Kurdistan, many people tell us that it's not acceptable to criticize for example, [KDP head] Mas'ud Barzani. Actually, people argue that in the PUK-controlled areas, it's OK to criticize [PUK head] Jalal Talabani.... But in the KDP-controlled areas, it is not criticize Mas'ud Barzani in public.

ABDUL RAHMAN: That's not been the case whenever I've been in Kurdistan. People have spoken their minds very freely.... People do feel very loyal to the Kurdish leadership, partly because Kurdistan has been under attack throughout its there is that sense of loyalty, of wanting to be loyal to your party, to your tribe, to your group, if you like. There is that element of loyalty there, and there is that element of people being deferential, that people in the West just don't have.

RFE/RL: The people that I have spoken to myself in Kurdistan have told me that it's not a case of being deferential to the party, it's that they feel fearful that if they speak against Barzani, for example, in public, that there will be repercussions or some kind of adverse [action taken against] them.

ABDUL RAHMAN: They may have said that to you, but as I've said, whenever I've been in Kurdistan, people have spoken very freely, so I really can't comment any more on that.

IRAQ AND AUSTRALIA SETTLE WHEAT SCANDAL. The Australian Wheat Board (AWB) has reportedly reached a deal with Iraqi transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari that includes a price cut on the sale of wheat after a scandal threatened Australian wheat exports to Iraq. The Iraqi media has reported that the scandal erupted after six shipments totaling 1 million tons of Australian wheat were found to be contaminated with iron. AWB tested the wheat twice, before it was shipped and again after the allegations were made, and said the wheat was not contaminated.

Western press reports indicated that the dispute arose after Iraqi officials became aware of testimony given by AWB to an Australian parliamentary inquiry in February that it had obtained higher premiums from Iraq than from other markets.

This prompted Baghdad to seek a price cut of $240-$260 per ton on wheat in the contract, which expired in April and includes the six shipments. AWB claimed the price was justified, given the risks involved and the quality of the grain. "We have not decided to reimport from Australia," the director-general of the Iraqi Grain Board, Khalil Assi, told Reuters on 14 April. Meanwhile, outgoing Trade Minister Muhammad al-Juburi blamed "hidden forces" for the stalemate, saying they didn't want to see successful wheat trade between the two countries, Dow Jones reported on 6 May.

In 1990, the United States was Iraq's main wheat supplier. Since the 1991 Gulf War, however, Australia has been Iraq's main supplier, delivering up to 2 million tons a year under the UN's oil-for-food program, worth about $480 million per year. The United States announced its intention to reenter the Iraqi market in November 2003, when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters in Kabul, "The United States will aggressively pursue that market as the economy becomes more stabilized."

However, the Iraqi Grain Board chose Australia over the United States in the March 2004 tender. (U.S. wheat exporters, one week before the tender was issued, secured the sale of 160,000 tons of wheat.) This was also a relief to AWB, as Saddam Hussein's government, angry over Australia's support of the U.S. position on Iraq, had cut its 2003 order to Australia by 44 percent.

Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, U.S. Wheat Associates, a farm lobby, alleged that Australian farmers overcharged for deliveries under the oil-for-food program, suggesting that like other cases in the commercial sector, money from the contracts may have been paid to the Hussein regime in kickbacks, the BBC reported in June 2003. AWB called the claims baseless, while U.S. Wheat Associates asked then Secretary of State Colin Powell to ask that Australian wheat not be included in future supply contracts with Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority. Rumors of kickbacks to the regime also circled in Baghdad, much to the anger of Iraqi officials.

Australian wheat growers were also forced to write off $100 million in debt owed for wheat sold to the Hussein regime after the Australian government forgave some $600 million in Iraq's old wheat debts in May 2004. Taxpayers covered the other $500 million of the write-off.

Iraqi wheat imports are expected to double to 4 million tons in the next year from 2004 imports, CNN reported on 6 May. The United States is Australia's main rival for wheat contracts, but American grain traders say that contracts are marred by Iraqi government inefficiency. "They tender, but they don't buy," one Chicago trader told CNN. He added that tenders were announced late, or not at all. A European trader made similar claims, saying that the Iraqi Grain Board did not return e-mails, and asked for counteroffers weeks after original bids were made.

Argentina, Canada, the European Union, India, Russia, and Ukraine are also seeking wheat contracts. Germany supplied Iraq with 236,000 tons of wheat last year. (Kathleen Ridolfo)