Instrumentalized by others: The Turkmen in Iraq

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Turkmen are the third largest minority in Iraq, but they have little political influence. The reasons for the weakness of the Turkish minority are due to the abuse of ethnicity by other actors and the lack of closeness of the Turkmen parties to their voter base.

Although they are an important ethnic group in Iraq, the Turkmen have been systematically oppressed since the founding of the modern Iraqi state. Until the fall of the Baath regime, Turkmen settlements were Arabised and neglected. After an initial mood of optimism and hope for the future after the fall of the Baathists under dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Iraqi Turkmen were quickly disappointed. The following governments also adopted the Baathist attitude regarding the Turkish minority.

In order to understand the plight of the Iraqi Turkmen in their entirety, the dynamics within the political mainstream among Turkmen must also be highlighted, which sheds light on the organizational weaknesses and the inefficiency of the political organisations.

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Turkmen parties are generally divided into three main camps. The first camp is a group of Turkmen parties founded by Iraqi-Shiite parties. These receive indirect support from Iran. This group appeals to Shiite Turkmen who live mainly in disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil. This initiative was successful in winning Shiite Turkmen votes in favour of the large Shiite parties in the country. A large percentage of Shiite Turkmen support the majority of pro-Iranian Shiite parties for sectarian reasons rather than ethnic reasons.

The second group are those founded by Kurdish parties in the northern Kurdish region. They receive direct support from Kurdish parties in exchange for political support.

The third group consists of the so-called Iraqi Turkmen Front supported by Turkey. This party has the largest popular base among the Turkmen in Iraq, compared to the Kurdish or Iranian supported parties.

The first two groups are mainly committed to the narrow interests of their competing Kurdish or Iranian supporters. The Iraqi Turkmen Front, on the other hand, sees its loyalty above all in a united Iraq, despite the support it receives from Turkey. In addition, it has a much greater degree of political independence than other Turkmen parties.

The approximately 3.5 million Turkmen are religiously divided into Sunnis and Shiites. Around 60 percent of the Turkish minority in Iraq belongs to the Sunni and 40 percent to the Shiite factions.

A map of Turkmen settlements in Iraq. Source: Istanbul university

Iraqi-Schiite parties founded and financed Shiite Turkmen parties in order to target and win important voices. For example, there are Shia-Turkmen deputies in the Shiite political movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the ruling Dawa Islamic Party under Prime Minister Haidar el-Abadi. Sunni parties and movements also use Sunni-Turkmen personalities to gain better access to the minority. In the northern Iraqi Kurdish region, Kurdish parties – especially the leading Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) of the Barzani Clan – founded loyal parties on behalf of the Turkmen. Four of the five Turkmen seats in the Kurdish parliament are occupied by personalities closely associated with Kurdish parties. In addition, the involvement of Turkmen in the Kurdish regional government is limited to those who have close relations with Kurdish parties.

The Iraqi Turkmen Front is one of the largest and most popular Iraqi Turkmen parties. It was founded in 1997 in Erbil to unite the political influence of the Turkmen under one umbrella organisation. The founding parties consisted of several Turkmen parties supported by Turkey. After 2003, the movement moved its headquarters to Kirkuk, which is regarded as the political and emotional centre of the Turkish minority in Iraq. However, the front after the move to Kirkuk limited itself to the Sunni Turkmen in the province and developed a limited view of the national affairs of the minority. Official Turkish support goes beyond this positioning of the Turkmen front, but the policy of the Turkmen Party has failed to develop into an effective representative of the Turkmen people in Iraq. The party lacks a unifying vision for the third largest ethnic group in the Arab country.

Instead of unifying the Turkmen discourse across the country, the front indirectly promoted the division of its population into various areas of influence in Iraq. Since 2003, all high-ranking representatives of the „Iraqi Turkmen Front“ have come exclusively from the Turkmen community in Kirkuk. Not even the town of Tal Afar and its surroundings, where nearly 350,000 Turkmen live, are adequately represented in the party. The city suffered greatly from the war of recent years and sectarian conflicts. Nevertheless, the Turkmen front failed to connect the Turkmen living there across sectarian lines.

Among other things, this urged many Sunni Turkmen to join groups such as al Qaeda and the „Islamic State“, where they frequently held high-ranking positions. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani was one of the highest-ranking Emirs of the self-proclaimed IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was a Sunni Turkmen from Tal Afar. Al-Turkmani was the second highest military commander of the terrorist militia in Iraq until he was killed in 2015.

Moreover, the Turkmen Front has not been able to establish a stable leadership since its founding, which is capable of representing the Turkmen community in its breadth. Every high-ranking Turkmen representative who left the party formed an independent party, withdrew completely from political life or is accused of treason by his successor.

The majority of the Turkmen parties in Iraq in general and in the Kurdish region in particular do not really represent the Turkmen people and their interests. Since the present Turkmen political parties were not founded by the Turkmen public, they have only to a limited extent taken into account the interests of the Turkmen people.

However, the limitation of the Iraqi Turkmen Front could change. In the course of the defeat of the „Islamic State“ the so-called „Turkmen coordination organization“ was founded. Turkey supports that process. Under the leadership of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, this organisation now represents representatives of the broad diversity of the minority. Shiite and Sunni Turkmen from the provinces of Diyala, Salahaddin, Kirkuk and Ninevah are represented. According to reports, the Turkmen coordination is currently negotiating with the Iraqi government about a certain autonomy status of the Turkish minority between Turkmen strongholds Tuz Churmatu, Kirkuk and Tal Afar.

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The front is also accused of having conspired with Turkey since its establishment. That is an exaggerated accusation, lacking in evidence though. The close relations between the front and Turkey, which supports the movement, are ethnic in nature. They ensure a close relationship between both sides. In addition, the great sympathy of the Turkish people for Turkmen in Iraq and especially in Kirkuk, which is deeply rooted in Turkish social consciousness, must be taken into account. This sympathy leads often to pressure on the various Turkish governments to support the Turkmen in Iraq. Despite this support, however, the Turkmen front until now has failed to establish itself as a positive political force for the Iraqi Turkmen people in Iraq.

The majority of the Turkmen parties in Iraq in general and in the Kurdish region in particular do not really represent the Turkmen people and their interests. Since the present Turkmen political parties were not founded by the Turkmen public, they have only to a limited extent taken into account the interests of the Turkmen people.

The main reason for the greater acceptance of the Turkmen front among the Turkmen population in Iraq is that Turkey identifies with Turkmen basic interests and wants to strengthen them. Moreover, Ankara is also not pursuing campaigns that put Iraqi integrity at stake in the face of Kurdish separatism in Iraq.



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