[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
If you are driving in or around Kirkuk, you have to watch around for American troops. If you see them coming in their giant armored hummers, you have to stop your car and wait silently until they pass. This is exactly what Yusuf Ziyauddin, 47, a Turkmen who works as an engineer in Kirkuk’s oil industry, did two weeks ago when a convoy of Uncle Sam’s humvees showed up on the other side of Kirkuk’s main highway. After waiting for the end of their parade, he expressed his personal disillusion with the American dream. “I used to love Hollywood movies before 2003,” he said, “now I can’t stand them.”
Ziyauddin is no wild-eyed fanatic. He simply thinks the United States’ presence has made Iraq basically less safe. He also has a problem with the attitude of these foreign troops. He understands that the stop-your-car-when-you-see-the-Americans policy is to prevent car bombers, from which the U.S. army has suffered immensely. But what is called “security” on the U.S. side still looks like “intimidation” to Iraqis like him.
“But American troops are nothing when compared to the really evil ones,” he said. The “really evil ones,” according to him and many Iraqis, are the private contractors like those of the controversial Blackwater Security Consulting, which has been accused of causing many civilian deaths and even arms smuggling. There are many stories about the machismo and insulting behavior of these mercenaries. For Ziyauddin, Iraq will be a much better place to live the day these aliens go back home.
The two Iraqs
For Kurds, there is a different picture of Iraq. First of all, unlike most of the Arabs and other ethnic groups, they don’t live under occupation. Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region has no visible presence of U.S. or British troops, or the contractors. Arbil has a few hundreds Koreans, but they are engaged mostly in helping develop infrastructure and thus are widely welcomed. Security is provided by Peshmergas, the Kurds’ own military force.
Comparing Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kirkuk is enough to reveal the large gap between the Kurdish region of Iraq and the rest. Arbil is a calm city in which trade flows, new buildings rise, and people are hopeful. Peshmergas carrying AK-47′s at virtually every spot indicate that security is still at risk, but life goes on as normal.
Kirkuk, on the other hand, is not just 100 kilometers south, but also several checkpoints and many tense feelings away. Somewhere in the middle of the Arbil-Kirkuk road, the semi-autonomous region of “Kurdistan” ends. The flags of Kurdistan are replaced by Iraqi ones, and Peshmergas with soldiers of the Iraqi army. The closer you get to Kirkuk, the more security forces you see. Drivers try to guess what last nights’ explosion really was — a car bomb, a mine, a rocket, or perhaps a suicide attack.
The outskirts of Kirkuk present a scene that explains many of the tensions that this city suffers from: Wells that continuously pump from a very rich reserve harboring an amazing 7 percent of the world’s oil.
Yet this tremendous source of wealth has not been much of a blessing for this multi-ethnic city of Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. In the early 1970s, Iraq’s Baath government, which had recognized the area as the Kurdish Autonomous Region with the agreement of 1970, initiated an “Arabization” policy to make sure that Kirkuk remained outside of Kurdistan. Arab tribes from southern Iraq were enticed to move to the city with government benefits, while hundreds of thousands of Kurds, and less so Turkmens, were forced to leave the city. Saddam Hussein only hastened the process in order to further “Arabize” the oil-rich city.
Normalization or Kurdification?
Since the American occupation in 2003, the situation has been reversed. Hussein’s Baath regime was gone forever, and Kurds, for the first time, became masters of their own fate. In Kirkuk, a process of “normalization” began, defined as resettling to their original areas the Arabs brought to the city by successive Baath governments and returning the Kurds displaced from the city back to their homes. Yet Turkmens and Arabs in Kirkuk claim that “normalization” is in fact excessive “Kurdification.” Today the city has been filled up with a few hundred thousand Kurdish newcomers, seen by others as a maneuver to tip the ethnic balance in favor of the Kurds. The belated referendum the Iraqi Constitution decreed to determine whether the Kirkuk Governorate will be incorporated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region is the key.
“We actually don’t have a problem with the old Kurds,” said Tahir Razaman, 39, a Turkmen who owns a barbershop in Kirkuk, adding: “The problem is the new Kurds.” What Ramazan means is that the tension between Kurds and Turkmens in the city is also a tension between the urban and the rural. The newcomers are mostly villagers who are foreign to Kirkuk’s more refined ways of living. Turkmens, who are more urban, have come to feel sidelined in their own city.
The Divided Turkmens
Other Turkmens in Kirkuk are even more alarmed about the Kurdish ascendancy in the city and the region. They are the ones who run the Iraqi Turkmen Front, or, “Irak Türkmen Cephesi” (ITC). This is a political party that claims to represent Iraq’s Turkmens, but its popularity is limited. In the election of 2005, the ITC received about 70,000 votes, a small number when compared to the total population of Turkmens in Iraq, about which estimates vary from 1 to 3 million.
The truth about the ITC is that it represents not only its local Turkmen supporters but also Ankara’s policies. It is common knowledge in Iraq that it was the Turkish Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or, MIT), which formed the ITC in the early 1990s as a means to counter Kurdish political power. The Turkish armed forces are said to have assumed leadership of the ITC later on. No wonder the rhetoric of the ITC echoes that of the Turkish military, whose “red lines” include pre-empting the formation of a Kurdistan government in Iraq.
Besides the ITC, there are several other Turkmen political parties who seem to be more attuned with Iraq than with Ankara. Shiite Turkmens, for their part, ally with Shiite Arabs. On the other hand, most Turkmens in the autonomous region seem to be satisfied with the rights they have under Kurdish rule. “We have Turkmen schools, TVs and radios,” said Umit Halifa, the head of the Turkmen Culture and Art Directorate formed under the Ministry of Culture of Iraqi Kurdistan. Halifa also edits a monthly magazine named “Barış” (Peace), published in the Turkmen language and financed by the Kurdistan government. “We Turkmens have no problem in Kurdistan,” he said, adding, “we have all our rights.”
Pro-Kurdish Turkmens such as Halifa and pro-Turkey Turkmens such as those in the ITC disapprove of each other’s political line. The ITC speaks of “Kurdish puppets,” whereas others define the front as “Ankara’s mouthpiece.”
The largest mosque in Arbil is the newly built Celil Hayat Mosque, whose imam is an erudite Turkmen named Mullah Beshir. In contrast with the widespread image of a Sunni Iraqi cleric, Beshir is a moderate and reconciliatory figure revered by almost all factions in the city. His discourse emphasizes not only traditional Islamic morals, but also modern concepts such as democracy, human rights and even “globalization.” He said that Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs share “a common religion,” and with Iraq’s non-Muslims they share “a common homeland.”
Although he is no fan of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Beshir is far from being an anti-American zealot. (As for the British, who he finds “more reasoned,” he is even somewhat sympathetic.) As for the Sunni-Shiite clash in central Iraq, he blames “external powers,” including “some neighboring countries.” Yet he carefully excluded Turkey from that and in fact praised Turkey, in particular the current AKP government, for trying to help Iraq.
Turkey’s Soft Power
Most Kurds in Arbil emphasize their willingness to be partners with Turkey. “Iranians sometimes rant at us since we have given most contracts to Turks,” said Farhad Awni, the president of the Kurdistan Writers Association. “But we are happy to do so, because we see our fate in friendship with the Turks.” Awni said that Turkey’s process with the European Union creates hopes in Iraqi Kurdistan, too: “We hope you will join the EU soon,” he said, “and thus our northern border will be with Europe!”
Some Turks discovered the potential in Iraq as early as the early 1990s. The Fethullah Gülen Movement, Turkey’s most powerful Islamic community, with a global network of schools and NGOs, is well established in northern Iraq. Since 1994, entrepreneurs of the movement have established a total of 8 schools in Arbil, Kirkuk and Suleymaniyeh, and they are highly popular. Many prominent Kurdish politicians and bureaucrats send their children to these modern schools, in which Kurdish, Turkmen, Arab or Assyrian students share the same seats. Graduates speak four languages — English, Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic — and do pretty well in university.
Talip Büyük, general director of the Fezalar Education Company, under which all these “Gülen schools” operate, said that Turkey has great potential through its “soft power” capacities in northern Iraq. “Kurds admire Turkish schools, products, and even music,” he said, “it is time for Ankara to think about an effective dialogue.”
The Map to End All Maps?
But there are aspirations in Iraqi Kurdistan that makes Ankara nervous. Probably none of them is more eye-catching then the Greater Kurdistan map, which can be seen in some official buildings, such as the office of the mayor of Arbil, and many hotels and restaurants. The small Kurdish Cultural Museum in Arbil’s historic castle even has a carpet displaying the map of this extensive Kurdistan, whose borders extend into Turkey, Syria and Iran. If this were a map of a new would-be state, the maps of all these countries would change.
Arbil’s Kurdish governor, Nawzad Hadi, said that the map is a cultural, not political one. “We of course have the idea of a land on which Kurds live,” he said, “but we have no plan for pan-Kurdism.” This message is given by almost all officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, who explain that they have affinity with Kurds in other countries, but they also realize that all these peoples have fates of their own. “We, the Kurds of Iraq, have found peace in this country with autonomy,” said Fazıl Mirani, the general secretary of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “As for other Kurds, we only hope that they will find the best ways for them under their governments.”
Actually many of Turkey’s fears about Iraqi Kurdistan come from the fact that it has not yet reached reconciliation with its own Kurds. If Turkey can manage to do that, than most of the concerns about Iraq’s Kurdistan will vanish. It is, after all, a tiny country, which has nothing to gain from enmity with Turks. And Turks have nothing to gain from not understanding that.