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

Tempers Flare Between Kurds and Turkomans

As newly empowered Kurds seek autonomy, members of the Turkoman minority in the north grow irritable.
By Wisam al-Jaff

"I can slaughter you all - but I don't want problems!” shouted Salah al-Turkomani.


“Don't provoke problems," he told seven young Kurds outside his office, one carrying a knife and another a brick.


Turkomani’s followers, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, stood behind him outside their Turkoman Front office in the east Iraqi town of Jalula. A few minutes earlier, their leader had slapped one of the Kurds to prevent him opening fire.


The young Kurds, all members of the local Dawia tribe, had come to take their revenge on a Turkoman who had beaten up a Kurdish teenager for brushing past him in the market place.


Throughout eastern Iraq, political tensions between Kurds and Turkomans sometimes flare into violence between individuals.


Here in Jalula, inhabited by Sunni Arabs and Christians as well as Turkoman and Shia, the tensions are fed partially by Kurdish claims that the town should form part of an autonomous Kurdistan.


But animosities are also fuelled by the resentment some Turkomans feel towards the sudden rise in the status of Kurds, who were repressed under the former regime of Saddam Hussein.


Many Kurds who were expelled from the region by Saddam have now returned. Their numbers have increased, and they have snapped up many key positions. The town's mayor is Kurdish, as are many of the police.


Several of those Kurdish policemen descended on the Turkoman office shortly after the quarrel.


The Turkoman leader refused to let them arrest one of his followers, insisting instead that they would go to the police station of their own volition.


"They were labourers and porters under Saddam, and now that they [the Kurds] are able to speak they want to take over the city," said one of the Turkomans dismissively.


"I believe that the city is on the verge of hell, and that civil war could happen," said local district head Anwar Hussein Mikael, a former member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. PUK, one of the two main parties in the Kurdish north.


Mikael blamed the tensions on "sentiments planted by the former regime", which made Kurds into "fourth-class citizens".


In a sign of small-town rivalries, both leaders accused the other community of taking money from outside backers. Mikael attributed the situation to meddling by Turkey, which sees itself as protector of the Turkoman minority.


"The Turkoman Front ... is directed by Turkish intelligence – because if you put your hand in a Turkoman citizen's pocket you will find it full of dollars," he said.


Salih al-Turkomani dismissed these allegations, claiming he was "not astonished" by them. He hit back by accusing the Kurdish leader of accepting money from the PUK - citing Mikael's new home as proof.


"How could he build a house with his salary in this difficult situation, when construction prices are very high?" asked Turkomani.


Mikael countered that as a Kurd he had been forbidden to build under Saddam’s regime, so it was understandable that new construction should now be taking place.


Wisam al-Jaff is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.