Turkmens objection to Iraqi Kurdistan region independence referendum

Alwaght – Like other regional countries, Iraq is home to multiple ethno-sectarian groups, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and minorities such as the Assyrians, Akkadians, Yazidis, and Armenians.

Although for some countries, diversity proves to be a strong point, for Iraq it has been source of troubles and divisions.

Among other groups, the Kurds of Iraq are a major part of the state. The ethic group since the 1990s has run its own autonomous region in northern Iraq. Recently, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) Masoud Barzani has announced that they intend to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq. But so far, the idea has failed to draw widespread approval across the nation as the central government, Iraqi people, and very specifically the Turkmens of the IKR have apparently voiced objection to any separatist moves of this kind.

The president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and representative of Kirkuk in the Iraqi parliament Ershad al-Salihi has recently reflected Turkmens’ opposition to an expected referendum set to be held by the Kurdish region’s government.

“The September 25 referendum has drawn massive reactions by regional and Iraqi sides and we think that its holding will have no use for any side,” al-Salihi was reported as saying.

Opposition to the upcoming Kurdish move is transforming the Turkmens of Iraq to a key party to the debate on the future of the IKR and other northern Iraqi regions. Turkmens’ demur to the Kurdish independence is emboldened by the Turkey’s support that reinforces stances of Iraq’s Turkmen parties such as the Iraqi Turkmen Front which disapproves of federal system as a governing model for Iraq and proposes that Kirkuk should be returned to the central government of Iraq. Contrasting views of the two sides over Kirkuk fate so far led to clashes and casualties.

After Arabs and Kurds, Turkmens make up the third-largest ethnic group of Iraq. Their presence in Iraq dates back to the Ottoman Empire’s seizure of Iraqi territories where Turkmens were positioned to work as governments employees. They predominantly live in Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Diyala, and Nineveh provinces. Many of Turkmens changed their living places in Iraq or left the country following Saddam Hussein regime’s policy of Arabization of northern Iraq as well as the post-Saddam terrorist attacks.

Their residential areas spread from Tal Afar and Sinjar close to the Syrian borders to different towns and village across northern Iraq, and end in Salaheddin and Kirkuk provinces right behind the Iranian borders. The Turkmens live in the middle of hot spots and any conflict directly affects their life.

The Turkmens in Iraq are Muslim, with 60 percent of them being Sunni and 40 percent being Shiite. The Sunnis are from Hanafi and Shafi’i branches and concentrate in both Tal Afar and Mosul. Turkmens of southern regions such as Diyala’s Kifri and Salaheddin’s Tuz Khurmatu are Shiite Muslims.

When autonomous Kurdish government was founded in 1991, feud between the Kurds and Turkmen deepened, making the latter fall victims to systematic policy of Kurdization that affected disputed areas including Kirkuk. The Kurds started their government in northern Iraqi areas where the Turkmens argued were their rightful territories. The Turkmens’ opposition to autonomous Kurdistan stemmed from the Turkish government’s viewpoints that regarded the modern-day Turkey as the inheritor of the Ottoman Empire in the northern Iraq.

For Turkmens, an independent Kurdish state poses an existential threat as Erbil has in hand strategies to force them out of the predominantly-Kurdish regions or absorb them in a purely Kurdish state.

Before foundation of the Kurdish region, the Turkmens’ largest area of concentration was Erbil, the capital of the later Kurdistan government, where they occupied outstanding economic and administrative positions. After 1996, the powerful Turkmens of Erbil have been opposing Kurds measures especially those of the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani

Turkmens are now living in tough conditions, with many of them having left their cities for Erbil and Karbala, and the remaining being exposed to terrorist and revenge attacks. Beside ISIS and Sunni Arabs, the Turkmens have to deal with Kurdish challenges.

Peshmerga forces fully controlled Kirkuk after Iraqi army units in the city fled upon ISIS seizure of Mosul in 2014. They now expanded their grasp over surrounding areas and are preparing the grounds for referendum to determine if the disputed regions want to go under Kurdistan region’s administration.

In April 2016, the Peshmerga fighters set up checkpoints in Tuz Khurmatu that was faced with the Turkmen popular forces opposition and deadly clashes that killed and injured people from both sides. The conflict winded down following mediation by Iran.