Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Strategy for Turkoman Bloc

After losing badly in the Iraqi elections, the Turkoman Front signals a more nuanced approach to the Kurds’s federalism demands.
By Soran Dawde

The main Turkoman political group in Kirkuk is rethinking its strategy as a result of its failure to make gains in the January elections.


In a dramatic turnaround, a leading official in the Turkoman Front indicated the group was now willing to countenance a federal Kurdistan, as long as the disputed city of Kirkuk retained a special separate status that gave all ethnic groups a say in how it is governed.


The front, a major Turkoman political force which is aligned with Turkey, has come under pressure to change since the January 30 ballot, and now looks set to reform itself.


The oil-producing area around Kirkuk makes the city a highly desirable asset, and many Kurds view it as the future capital and economic heart of a future autonomous Kurdish entity. But as Iraq's boundary lines are currently drawn, the city lies outside the three governorates that together make up the Kurdish-administered region.


Besides the Kurds – tens of thousands of whom have returned to the area after being forced to move by Saddam Hussein’s ethnic policy of “Arabisation” - there are significant Turkoman, Arab and Assyrian communities who all have an interest in the city’s future.


Leading Turkoman political groups, in particular, have always opposed the Kurds’ plan to win more autonomy and to claim Kirkuk as their own.


Like other Iraqis, Kirkuk voters took part in two ballots on January 30 - one for the National Assembly and for the governorate council, in this case of Taamim province.


The latter was won by the Kirkuk Brotherhood List – a 12-member coalition that was set up specifically for this region and included the two main Kurdish parties plus Turkoman and Arab representatives. The list got 26 of the 41 seats in the provincial council.


The major Turkoman political bloc, the Turkoman Front, performed worse than it had hoped at both provincial and national levels, winning only eight seats on the local council.


In the National Assembly vote, the front won only three seats in the 275-member body, making it an insignificant player compared with the victorious Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance List, which came second with 75 seats.


Riyadh Sari Kahya, who heads Turkmen Eli, a leading party in the Turkoman Front and one of the winning candidates, admits that he had been hoping to see the bloc win 30 seats in the national legislature.


With these hopes dashed, Kahya now says the Turkoman Front would accept a federal arrangement when the National Assembly drafts the new constitution.


The Kurds have been pressing for Iraq to be reorganised so that large federal units such as a Kurdish region – possibly expanded to take in Kirkuk – would become the basic sub-national entity, rather than the current 18 governorates.


“The Turkoman now accept a federal solution,” said Kahya, “but they want Kirkuk to be a [separate] federal entity, administered by Kurds, Turkoman and Arabs.”


In terms of national strategy, Kahya said the Turkoman Front had decided to join forces with the United Iraqi Alliance in the transitional parliament, having turned down a coalition offer from the Iraqi List, the group led by interim prime minister Ayad Allawi which came third in the ballot.


But he said the front would also be seeking to open up a dialogue with the Kurdish parties in the hope of building a new relationship with them.


He said it was now up to those parties to take the initiative, especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani, who is tipped to become Iraqi president.


While still advocating separate status for Kirkuk rather than accepting that it should be incorporated into a Kurdish federal entity, Kahya’s comments signal a significant softening of the Turkoman Front’s line because it embraces the idea of a federal Iraq in which the Kurds would get their own region.


That change of position may have been prompted by a new policy in Turkey, which has lent the Turkoman Front political and diplomatic support since the group emerged in 1995.


The Turks have until recently opposed Kurdish demands for a federal entity in northern Iraq, for fear it could inspire secessionists at home to push for parts of southeast Turkey to be attached to an emerging state of Kurdistan.


As well as its concerns about the political future of the Kurds and Kirkuk, Turkey has maintained a strong relationship with the Turkoman minority in Iraq because of common ethnic bonds.


Last week, Talabani met a visiting high-ranking Turkish delegation headed by the country’s special envoy to Iraq, Fahri Koruturk. According to the Turkish newspaper Zaman, delegation members told Talabani that Turkey no longer objects to the Kurds' call for federalism, as long as there are guarantees that Iraqi’s territorial integrity is maintained and Kirkuk is given special status.


Apart from forcing a radical change of tack, the election outcome could prove to have far-reaching consequences for the Turkoman Front itself.


Media reports have circulated in both Iraq and Turkey that the bloc is considering dissolving itself in the wake of its ballot-box failure.


But Kahya denied the rumours, saying that plan was instead to go back to the drawing board. A wide-ranging Turkoman Congress scheduled for April 22 would discuss “all options”, he said.


He added that in all likelihood the umbrella group’s constituent parties – his own Turkmen Eli plus the Turkoman National Party, the Independent Turkoman Movement, and Turkmen Ocagi – would coalesce into a single political party.


Although there appears to be greater flexibility on the issue of Kurdish self-rule, Turkoman politicians outside the front as well as in it appear determined to prevent Kirkuk being subsumed into a future Kurdistan.


Younis Bairaqdar, a political independent who was a member of the outgoing provincial assembly, highlighted his community’s wish to maintain its own identity, especially given widespread fears that Kirkuk could be vulnerable to “Kurdification”.


Tahseen Kahya, a former head of the same regional council who represents the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkoman – which was part of the United Iraqi Alliance in the national-level ballot – underlined that the question of who governs Kirkuk remains highly sensitive because of the area’s complex mix of ethnicities and sects.


The only way that the city could be merged into the Kurdish region to the north, he insisted, would be through a democratic and constitution-writing process that involved all of Iraq’s citizens. In that case, he said, "We will accept the people's decision no matter what it is."


Soran Dawde is a correspondent for al-Hurah Television.