by Mina Al-Droubi
The Turkmen, Iraq’s third-largest ethnic group, are mainly clustered in northern Iraq, including the disputed city of Kirkuk. Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are fighting for control of the oil-rich city, which has harbored Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Christians for centuries. A referendum to decide whether Kirkuk would be integrated within the autonomous Kurdish region or remain under Baghdad’s control was originally scheduled for November 2007, but has been repeatedly delayed, leading to an entrenchment of positions on all sides.
The past year has seen the intensification of sectarian violence in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. The nearby town of Tuz Khurmato has also been caught up in the dispute. The town, with a majority Turkmen population, has suffered a series of bomb attacks, reportedly the work of Sunni militants. Amid this unpredictability, the Turkmen Front hoped to give the inhabitants of this afflicted area a say in the future course of their country in this week’s nation-wide legislative elections. In conversation with The Majalla the Front’s leader, Arshad Al-Salihi, spoke about the obstacles his Front encountered during the election campaign and what Turkmen political leaders hope to achieve in the future.
The Majalla: What challenges did your party face in the run up to the April 30 elections?
Arshad Al-Salihi: The challenges that the Turkmen Front is facing are the opposition of the larger blocs, in that their interests collide with the Front’s main goals and development. The blurred strategies and vision of the regional government [KRG] is one of the main problems we are facing. This has been the result of added pressure by local parties on the government, which increased rapidly as it got closer to the elections. This has been highlighted through the excessive bombing and increasingly dangerous situation in Tuz Khurmato. [In addition,] one of the main challenges we have faced has been the blocking of our members from participating in the run-up to the elections in Nineveh.
Additionally, terrorist organizations have also targeted the Turkmen areas in northern Iraq, through explosions, killing and kidnapping. The Turkmen minority is not protected by the government, and there have been no steps taken to overcome this problem.
Q: What about obstacles to Turkmen in Iraq more generally?
The difficulties that we have faced are endless: all political parties in Iraq have agreed on the fact that the Turkmens have suffered and continue to suffer from marginalization, exclusion, assassinations, intimation and confiscation of land and property. Unfortunately, the scale of the sectarian and ethnic divides in the country has enabled the various political parties to overlook the matter in light of their own interests. This makes it very difficult for us to stand our ground and to remind them how the Turkmens are an essential part of Iraq’s identity.
This is why our vision for the Front has collided with the visions of other ethnic–national parties. As a result there are no Turkmen representatives in the various institutes in the government or in Kirkuk. This results in a lack of Turkmen voices in decision-making in Iraq. There are no staff in the council of Kirkuk—we need more Turkmen participation in institutes to make matters easier for the citizens of Kirkuk, who are mostly of Turkmen origin.
From a political perspective, Iraq is split between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds; we want to be a part of this equation. The Turkmens needs to a have a voice and to be a part of the decision-making in government as we have a big population in Iraq. This is what we are seeking to achieve.
Q: Has the increasing violence in Iraq affected the Turkmen Front?
Explosions in Iraq, especially in Turkmen areas, have been a very normal element, occurring almost every day. However, it has to be noted that before election day in particular severe explosions were seen in Turkmen areas to intimidate people and prevent them from casting their votes. Meanwhile, other areas in the north are not experiencing as many explosions as the Turkmen areas. This means that the Turkmen turnout at elections is very low, as most people are afraid of leaving their homes to vote. The Turkmen Front has demanded Baghdad’s central government provide security and protection for Turkmen citizens so that they can participate in the elections and experience what democracy is. Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has not ensured any form of protection for the Turkmen minority . . . What I want to know is: why are the members of the Turkmen Front and the Turkmen population being targeted and attacked?
Q: You have recently called for international support to protect the city of Tuz Khurmato. Have you taken any steps to solve the problem?
The disagreement between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government is a dangerous matter for Turkmen areas. Explosions were seen in areas such as Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmato and Tal Afar, the regional government did not permit its forces to protect the people and it opposed the formation of Turkmen forces to protect their neighborhoods. The central government in Baghdad has also [blocked] its military from protecting the citizens of Tuz Khurmato, which has led to ongoing terrorist operations in which innocent Turkmen citizens are paying the price.
The European Parliament has held private meetings regarding the deteriorating situation of the Turkmens in Iraq and has issued a statement condemning the violent acts against them and demanded that the central government and regional government offer immediate protection and necessary services for the innocent civilians.
So the Iraqi government has not participated in solving the problem of Tuz Khurmato; its help has been limited even though it is fully aware of the history and the complications of this town. The Turkmen Front received aid from the Turkmen endowment (waqf) in order to help the citizens of Tuz Khurmato when they were under siege. We were able to transport those that needed immediate medical care to hospitals outside Iraq, without discriminating against them in terms of ethnicity and religion. We helped out anyone who needed our help and assistance. We were able to do this without the help of the Iraqi government.
If the Iraqi government continues to overlook the genocide that is occurring in Tuz Khurmato, then we will have to resort to seeking international help in solving this problem as it cannot continue any longer.
Q: In your opinion, what is the best solution to the problems in Tuz Khurmato?
The best way to solve the problems in Tuz Khurmato is to restore the rights and security that were seized from the Turkmen minority in Iraq, to give opportunities to Turkmen representatives to be a part of the Iraqi government and for their security forces to enable protection of innocent civilians, and to participate in ongoing talks between the regional and central government and have a voice in the decision-making processes.
Q: What were you hoping to provide for the Turkmen of Iraq by participating in the elections?
We hope to meet the demands of the Turkmen citizens in Iraq. This can only be achieved if the Turkmen Front is integrated within various aspects of the Iraqi government and within the institute of Kirkuk [in order] to be a part of their administration, management and decision-making process. We also hope to regain the agricultural land that was taken from the Turkmens under Saddam’s regime that has still not been returned to its rightful owners. We want to maintain security, to control the violence that is occurring in northern Iraq, and finally to practice democracy in the utmost accurate manner.
Q: What is the Turkmen vision for the future of Iraq?
Our vision for the future of Iraq is unclear because the political views of the larger blocs are ambiguous, and as a result they are restricting our political progress. The external influences in Iraqi politics have also played an immense role in this uncertainty, and this is why our vision for the future of Iraq is in doubt.
However, we hope to preserve the unity of Iraq and its people, to help develop institutions, to maintain the identity of Turkmens in Iraq and finally to attain legitimate rights of Turkmens without discrimination.
This interview has been abridged.