Turkmen are Iraq’s third largest ethnic group but they remain underrepresented in politics and their plight is largely ignored.
Baghdad - Iraq’s Turkmen are the country’s third largest ethnic group after Arabs and Kurds but the community of nearly 3 million people has endured displacement, isolation, discrimination and violence throughout its history.
Today, the Turkmen remain underrepresented in Iraqi politics and their plight is largely ignored.
Regionally, Turkey is close to Iraq’s Turkmen. They share a dialect spoken in Istanbul and historically they have had close ties. Recently, however, Iraqi Turkmen have complained that they were bypassed as Turkey consolidated ties with Iraq’s Kurds, with whom the Turkmen share territory in northern Iraq.
Turkmen towns in Iraq were ransacked and seized by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in attacks that killed scores of people. Elsewhere in Iraq, Turkmen are kidnapped by groups seeking ransom.
Life was little better for the Turkmen under the regime of Saddam Hussein when thousands of Turkmen in central and southern Iraq were purged from their native villages, losing their property and possessions during a campaign in the 1980s that imposed Arab culture and identity on ethnic groups.
Even giving Turkmen names to newborns was banned with violators jailed or executed.
“The Turkmen were being systematically denied their political rights and persecuted since the British colonisation of Iraq in 1918,” insisted Turhan Ketene, founder and president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), once an umbrella organisation for Turkmen nationalist parties.
“The most important reason is to avoid stirring another problem in Iraq and also the region by recognising that Turkmen make up a high 13% of the population,” Ketene said.
Torhan Mufti, president of the Turkmen nationalist Hak Party, said Turkmen were partly to blame for their failure to gain broader rights and freedoms, redeem their confiscated lands and making their case known to the international community.
“This is the result of blunders by Turkmen politicians,” Mufti said, pointing to a passive political approach that had them tail Turkey instead of adopting an independent line to garner international sympathy.
“We should admit that we, as Turkmen politicians, have failed to highlight our issue in international forums because of the regional control of the Turkmen dossier,” he said.
Turkmen — who have ruled Iraq six times over the centuries — inhabit various areas across the country but mainly dwell in the north. There they share territory with the Kurds, who keep them under check.
Iraq’s Turkmen are part of the Turkic people found mainly in Central Asian regions of Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and the North Caucasus. But Iraqi Turkmen observe certain cultural traditions evinced by the larger society.
They are adherents of either the Sunni or Shia sects of Islam. Many are professionals but few hold public posts in Iraq. In the 328-seat Iraqi parliament, Turkmen have only two seats.
Although they were recognised as a constitutive entity of Iraq in the constitution of 1925, Iraqi Turkmen were later stripped of that privilege. It was not until July 2012 that Iraq’s legislature recognised the Turkmen as the country’s third largest ethnic group.
Lawmakers have since called their area Turkmeneli — the areas of the Turkmen — and considered Kirkuk their capital.
“Turkmeneli, especially Kirkuk, produces nearly 20% of Iraq’s and 2.2% of the world’s petroleum,” said Sami Bayatli, a member of the Kirkuk city council.
“We also have other resources like natural gas and sulphur and our soil is the most fertile in Iraq.”
Rashad Mendan Omar, a former minister of technology and science, said the Turkmen had been victims of blackmail by religious and political groups. In 2006, Turkmen paid $10 million in ransom for the return of abducted community members, Omar said.
Former Iraqi Human Rights minister Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati said 770 Turkmen were killed by ISIS in the past year, at least 960 others were wounded and 350, including women and children, are missing.
At least 590,000 Turkmen have been displaced in Iraq, Bayati added.
Bayatli, the Kirkuk city council member, said Turkmen are even deprived of having a word in the areas they share with other ethnic groups, which have drawn city limits in anticipation of Iraq’s division into three parts — Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the centre and Shias in the south.
Dr Elham Abbas, a UK-based gynaecologist and a Turkmen activist, said Turkish influence that obstructed Turkmen unity coupled with little media publicity undermined efforts to make the group heard. “We are not united like the Kurds. We still serve the interests of others and our victims are literally ignored in the media,” he said.
Mufti said Turkmen will “work hard to rescue our heritage, language, land, history and future”.
“But it’s high time that the world knows that Turkmen are facing a systematic cultural war and genocide,” he said.