Iraqi Turkmen: the minority group you probably never heard of

Published August 23rd, 2016 - 08:50 GMT
Kirkuk, Iraq is home to much of the country's Turkmen population (Al Bawaba/Adam Lucente)
Kirkuk, Iraq is home to much of the country's Turkmen population (Al Bawaba/Adam Lucente)

Like much of the Middle East, Iraq was once part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, thousands of ethnic Turks settled in what is now the Republic of Iraq. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, most stayed and number between 1 to 3 million today, and are known as Iraqi Turkmen.

But their history in Iraq has not always been smooth. “Our problems are not new. We’ve been suffering since 1921 as successive Iraqi governments had national ideas and did not give certain rights to minorities,” said Ali Akram to Al Bawaba.

Akram is president of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation. They advocate for Turkmen rights in Iraq, and aim to bring the plight of their people to the world’s attention via social media and other means.

Akram and others believe such an organization is necessary to protect Iraqi Turkmen, who live mostly in ethnically diverse areas of the country’s north. In the 21st century, Akram, for one, believes abuses of Turkmen rights stem from disputed territories in northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“After 2003, the issue of disputed provinces in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tuz Khormato arose. The Iraqi government went away and the KRG’s expansion became a problem. The Kurds just protect themselves and are not very interested in protecting Turkmen or other minorities,” said Akram, speaking by phone from Baghdad.

While many Kurds would undoubtedly disagree with this assessment, there have been several clashes between Kurds and Turkmen in these areas. In April, fighting broke out between peshmerga (KRG military) and Popular Mobilization Units in Tuz Khormato, causing many people to flee to nearby Kirkuk.

The Popular Mobilization Units are largely-but not exclusively-Shia militias allied with the government in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). In Tuz Khormato, they largely consist of Turkmen fighters.

Beyond the clashes, Akram noted several massacres of Turkmen to Al Bawaba. In 2015, the Turkmen Rescue Foundation reported that 700 Turkmen were executed by Daesh, and that several hundred are believed to remain in their captivity.

“This is where the international community didn’t help, as they didn’t with Yazidis,” said Akram.

Daesh targets minorities for a variety of reasons. With Christians and Yazidis, it’s often religious reasons. There may be other reasons too.

“Al-Qaeda always attacked the weakest people in Iraq,” said Akram, referring to Daesh’s origins as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

On the reasons for fighting between Kurds and Turkmen, Akram believes it is due to the strategic locations of Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and other locales, as well as the Kurdish desire for autonomy.

KRG leaders have made their desire for greater autonomy clear, and claim to protect all inhabitants of the autonomous region. In many cases, peshmerga has fought to defend minority areas. On the other hand, some minorities in addition to Turkmen have accused the peshmerga of not protecting them.

Akram and the Turkmen Rescue Foundation thus have a few goals. “We’re trying to be a contact point for Turkmen IDPs, kids, and abductees between us and the Iraqi government and the international community,” said Akram. He also stressed their participation in international conferences, and efforts to secure aid for IDPs and others.

“We don’t want to be part of any Iraqi political party,” Akram said. “We want to be the lone voice of our people.”

As previously mentioned, there are armed Turkmen groups now. But for the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, much of the fight is online.

Their Twitter account @TurkmenRescue is their most active on social media. It regularly tweets on minority rights in Iraq, as well as criticisms of the peshmerga and other national players.

The foundation even has a news agency. Turkmen News Agency reports on community news in Turkish, Arabic and English. Most Turkmen speak Arabic, but also maintain a dialect of Turkish.

Turkmen receive far less coverage than Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and others. But being at the heart of the fight against Daesh, the quest for Kurdish independence, and the history of post-invasion Iraq, the Turkmen Rescue Foundation may succeed in bringing Turkmen to the world’s attention.

Adam Lucente


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