Turkish Tensions over Mosul and Kirkuk

Kurdish advances into key oil cities have raised alarms in Ankara over a possible Kurdish political entity in Iraq.

Turkish Tensions over Mosul and Kirkuk

Kurdish advances into key oil cities have raised alarms in Ankara over a possible Kurdish political entity in Iraq.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Turkey announced yesterday that it has sent some 15 military observers to monitor developments in northern Iraq after Kurdish forces, in coordination with the Americans, took control of key oil towns there. With Kirkuk and now Mosul "liberated" by Kurdish forces, Turkey is getting increasingly tense over the Kurdish role in the war in Iraq. Its anxiety arises from several factors.

Principally, Turkey is determined that Iraq's five million Kurds should not acquire a coherent political entity such as the federal state to which the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan aspire. Kurdish reassurances that there is no intention to secede from Iraq cut no ice.

Turkey does not want a federal state in Iraq because it reminds its own much larger Kurdish community what it has itself been denied. From 1923 onwards, Turkey ruthlessly suppressed Kurdish identity in Turkey. It spent 15 years defeating the separatist Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but having won the military war it knows it is still in danger of losing the much more important political one. Turkey taught its own Kurds about their distinctive identity much more effectively than the PKK. By its killings, torture and the mass evacuation of the countryside, it must take credit for creating the Kurdish national movement in Turkey.

Now that Turkey badly wants to join the European Union, it finds itself having to liberalise internally, something replete with the danger of pluralism. The last thing it wants is for Iraq's Kurds to demonstrate just what can be achieved in Iraq, a state that admits to pluralism.

Behind this immediate fear, however, stands a far longer history - a history of claim to Mosul, which yesterday fell into the hands of Iraqi Kurds.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, British forces cheated on the Armistice of Mudros by requiring the defeated Ottoman forces to withdraw completely from both the city and the province of Mosul - ensuring that Mosul became a bitter bone of contention. Ataturk's National Pact of 1919, the emotive 'title deed' of modern Turkey, included the province within its boundaries and it was only reluctantly that Turkey accepted the 1925 League of Nations ruling that the province would remain part of Iraq. Deep down, most Turks who know this history still feel cheated.

It is most unlikely that Turkey will ever seek to regain the province of Mosul except in the case of complete Iraqi meltdown. But the Kurds are justifiably fearful of Turkey, even so. They are also fearful that just as Britain reassured Turkey in 1923 that the Kurds would not be allowed to form a separate political entity, so the US may likewise reassure its NATO ally that no Kurdish state will be allowed on its south-eastern border.

Turkey has also made protective utterances about the one million or so Turkomans who live along an arc of land on the fringe of the Kurdish mountains. It is essentially a ploy for Turkey to have a legitimised hand in the internal affairs of northern Iraq. The Turkomans may be Turkic and may have been subjects of the Ottoman Empire, but they have no real connection with the Republic of Turkey. But Turkey expresses interest because of the many Turkomans in Kirkuk and does not want the Kurds to acquire physical control of the oilfields there.

Like the Kurds, the Turkomans were strongly represented in Kirkuk until Saddam 'arabised' the area by forcible population exchange. Until the 1950s, the Turkomans almost certainly outnumbered the Kurds. That changed first as Kurds drifted down from the mountains to find employment in the expanding oilfields, then when Saddam began his arabisation policy in the 1970s.

Turkey never threatened action to protect the Turkomans from Baghdad. But then Turkey is only really interested in the Turkomans vis-à-vis the Kurds. The Turkomans are its lever.

Turkey has warned the Kurds not to mistreat the Turkomans. But that is unlikely. The Turkomans and Kurds share the same grievance over Kirkuk: they want their homes and lands back. And they want the 250,000 or so Arab settlers to go. What is important is that neither the Kurds nor the Turkomans claim Kirkuk as exclusively their own. There was always an Arab community in Kirkuk too and that will need to be protected, and differentiated from those moved in under Saddam's settlement schemes.

As long as outsiders do not interfere, there is a real chance that Kirkuk can come to symbolise the symbiosis of pluralism within the new Iraq. With the exception of one major explosion of anger in 1959, there has never been serious ethnic conflict between Kurds and Turkomans. But those who believe in pluralism will have to be on their guard. There are any number of potential trouble-makers both inside and outside the country who will be looking to exploit the fault lines between Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Arab, Turkoman and Kurd, Muslim and Christian and secular and religious.

The challenge for the three ethnic communities of Kirkuk is to be inclusive - not only in their rhetoric, but also in the way Kirkuk is managed.

David McDowall is author of A Modern History of the Kurds.

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