Concerning the Turkomen

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Interviews with figures of authority (FOA) in this region follow a pretty standard pattern. You greet them, shake their hands and then you sit down. Then you explain what you’d like to talk about. What follows is a 15-20 minute statement by the FOA broken up by the translator who never works quite quickly enough for the statement-maker, so only about every other block of speech is fully translated.

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Interviews with figures of authority (FOA) in this region follow a pretty standard pattern. You greet them, shake their hands and then you sit down. Then you explain what you’d like to talk about. What follows is a 15-20 minute statement by the FOA broken up by the translator who never works quite quickly enough for the statement-maker, so only about every other block of speech is fully translated.
After this statement, which is organized like a college term paper with points and sub-points and full of verbal subheadings like, “Concerning the Turkomen’s position in Kirkuk….”, then I can ask questions. Interruptions or questions are not tolerated in the opening statement (“let me finish, please,” the FOA says when I attempt to get in a question.)
This happens every time, and yesterday’s chat with Kanan Shakir Uzeyrag Ali, the head of the Turkomen Independent Movement, one of the three parties making up the Iraqi Turkomen Front, was no exception. The president of the Front, Sanan Ahmet Aga, was unavailable, despite my 11 a.m. appointment.
“Our God, Allah, can do things in seconds, but he chose to create the world in six days,” said Salim Otrakchi, a political advisor to Aga. “If you have to wait a few hours to see the president, you must be patient.”
Well, I got Ali instead, which was just as well, as he was the Turkomen representative at the Kirkuk meeting on Friday that also included U.S. Gen. Baker and representatives from the PUK and KDP. The topic was the governing of Kirkuk, which Ali said was a Turkomen city.
Sorting out the competing claims on Kirkuk and other cities in Iraq is difficult. There hasn’t been an official Iraqi census since 1957 and population numbers have been manipulated over the years to suit the Ba’athish regime’s purposes. Also, Kirkuk has been heavily Arabized, with Turkomen and Kurds expelled from the city and surrounding villages to make way for Arabs from the south. Because of such forced demographic changes and the age of the city, at the moment, no one can say — honestly — who has a greater historical claim on the city. How far back should the claims go? The only thing that is sure, concerning Kirkuk, is that its oil fields and refineries would be a plum to whichever ethnic group — Arabs, Kurds or Turkomen — that controlled it.
Throwing more gasoline on this oil fire is the threat of the Turks to invade if the Kurds do anything to alter the characteristics of the population of Kirkuk. That means if the Kurds allow the tens of thousands of families Arabized out of their homes since the 1920s — and the Anfal campaign of 1987-88 in particular — to return, Turkey will see that as the crossing of a red line and send in its approximately 15,000 troops massed on the border to the north.
None of this matters to Ali, who portrays the Turkomen as an oppressed minority in the Kurdish area of Iraq, who can depend on no one but their Turkish brothers to the north.
Ali said the Turkomen felt betrayed by the United States when the PUK peshmergas flowed into the city on Thursday, liberating it from Saddam with little bloodshed. Before order was more or less restored by a combined Kurdish and American presence, there was widespread looting. Nothing like the savagery in Mosul, mind you, which happened because the main peshmerga forces were kept out of that city and the U.S. military felt securing the oil fields was more important than filling the power vacuum left by the Iraqi V Corps’ vanishing act. There’s a growing sense of resentment among all ethnic parties toward the U.S. because of this failure to provide basic security in the wake of Saddam’s ouster.
But back to Kirkuk, Ali told me that Turkomen had been targeted for crimes and human rights violations.
“We have 200 documents that show Turkomen people were robbed,” he said. “The people who have suffered the most are the Turkomen. Any time there is some situation, the victim was Turkomen.”
I asked him how this compared to robbery reports by Kurds or Arabs or even Assyrians. He said he had no idea, as they went to their own people. How do you know there weren’t 500 robberies of Kurdish people or 1,000 assaults on Assyrians, I asked. Is the violence against the Turkomen targeted or are they just getting caught up in the general chaos? “This point is clear,” he added. “The Turkomen are not armed people. And the people stealing from them are armed people.”
This claim of Turkomen pacifism is, frankly, hard to believe. Practically every man in this country owns some kind of firearm. Most men in the ITF office where I interviewed Ali carried a sidearm or a Kalishnikov.
Ali said the meeting Thursday was productive in that Gen. Baker asked the Turkomen to take part in the security of the city, but he said the Turkomen, who have an aversion to guns, remember, would not be able to help until security was guaranteed by — surprise! — the Turks.
“Our people are sitting in their homes and they are having their families taken captive and their furniture taken,” he said. “How can he be a soldier? We are ready to help, but other military people are coming to capture us. We don’t know who they are.”
Hm. Anonymous thugs taking advantage of the chaos and terrorizing families I would buy. The implication that this is the Kurds’ fault or that Kurds themselves are doing it is a little more problematic. The translator embellished her boss’ words with the the lovely detail that the thugs wore the green and yellow ribbons of the PUK and KDP, respectively, but Ali corrected her and said that wasn’t the case. So some Turkomen, at least, are willing to blame the Kurds.
The ITF demands these foreign militia and peshmergas removed from Kirkuk, Ali said, and it wants a shared administration of the city, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. The idea, he said, is to have an administration based on proportional representation in Kirkuk.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. If the Turkomen can use the threat of Turkish intervention to pressure the Kurds into preventing the Kurdish refugees — most of them currently living in squalor in camps such as Binislawa outside Arbil — from returning to their old homes, Turkomen numbers won’t be diluted and their power in Kirkuk’s government — and their share of the oil revenue — will be that much greater.
To accomplish this, the Turkomen must claim oppression at the hands of the Kurds in the Kurdish enclave in the north.
“We have suffered under all people,” Ali said. “The Turkomen suffered under the KDP, politically, security and culturally.”
How so, I asked. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkomen have a newspaper, a radio station, a television station (one of the biggest buildings in town with a huge satellite dish on the top) their own schools, the right to speak their language, three political parties and representation in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament. The Turkomen in Iraqi Kurdistan have more cultural and political rights than the Kurds do in Turkey. What more do you want, I asked.
“These rights are the original rights of all people,” he said. “They are given from God. Other people don’t grant these rights. Arabs and Kurds have not power to grant these rights. We get these rights from our activities. A constitution would be helpful.”
I asked for specific examples of how their rights have been violated. The ITF has not been recognized, Ali said, and isn’t official. (But the three Turkomen parties that make up the ITF each have parliamentary representation.) Their reporters for the various media can’t leave the building and interview people on the street (Not true, I’ve watched Turkomen TV and they go out and interview people.) The Kurdish government officials won’t talk to their reporters (Well, sometimes they won’t talk to me; that’s the breaks.)
Their chief of security, Amir Azad, was arrested two months ago, Ali said, and they only now were able to send him a lawyer. “We are ready to give you a dossier about it,” he said.
“Great!” I said. “I’d like to see it.”
Then some discussion in Turkomen followed. “Oh, we have filed it with Kofi Anan at the United Nations. You can read it there.”
And then, after listing this litany of wrongs done to the Turkomen, Ali reversed himself.
“But we want to forget all and start a new page,” he said. “We don’t want to speak of past times.”
As a representative of a people who have allegedly suffered so much from the Kurds, Ali seemed awfully quick to put all these years behind them. His stated desire to move on represents either a saint-like ability to forgive, or a recognition that Turkomen claims are exaggerated.
PS: While I was typing this, it appears Tikrit has fallen without a fight. We’re heading there now.

Politics as an extension of warfare

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Now that the war seems to be winding down, the long knives of ethnic politics are coming out. Glad to see no one is wasting any time!

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Now that the war seems to be winding down, the long knives of ethnic politics are coming out. Glad to see no one is wasting any time!
In Kirkuk today, representatives from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Iraqi Turkomen Front and the Americans are meeting to thrash out how the city and the region will be governed once the PUK completes the pullout of its peshmergas from the city. Units from the American 173rd Airborne will be taking over to provide order and discourage the kind of looting taking place in Mosul today.
The looting in Mosul seemed much worse than what happened yesterday in Kirkuk. I bumped into Philip Robertson, of Salon.com, who asked me if the Americans were moving into Mosul. I said I didn’t know.
“Well, they better get there fast before they start shooting each other,” he said.
The issue of security is a tricky one, as Turkey is using the issue of the safety of the Turkomen minority in each city to justify a military intervention in northern Iraq. So far, the Turks’ response has been to send some “military observers” — basically a bunch of officers, near as I can tell — to Kirkuk, but they have thousands of heavily armed troops perched north of the border and just inside Iraq ready to swoop south. To the Kurds, this is just more of the Turks being the Turks.
“This is not the first time they have done this,” said Anawar Omer, 32, a laborer I spoke with in Arbil’s Shekhullah district, one of the major market areas. “They are the enemies of the Kurds and they want us to be nothing. Kirkuk is Kurdistan. It belongs to Kurds and it will always be that way.”
“We will kill the Turks if they come inside,” added Mahdi Kasab, a 30-year-old butcher standing nearby. “Each of us will kill six Turks if they come here.”
But the bellicosity of the Kurdish masses aside, the politics are as dangerous as any of the hundreds of minefields dotting the region.
“Kirkuk is delicate,” said Sadi Ahmed Pire, with the PUK international relations office and chief PUK representative in Arbil. “We have to be careful not to make any mistakes.”
Which brings us back to this meeting, which I’m sure is a big headache for the Americans trying to bring this region to heel. The agenda is to bring order to Kirkuk — setting up traffic police, a temporary mayor, curfews — without compromising anyone’s “interests.”
But “everyone’s” interests seem too contradictory to be reconciled. The Kurds claim Kirkuk as theirs, both for historical reasons — the validity of which I’m not even going to try to untangle — and economic reasons. The Kirkuk oil fields are some of the richest in Iraq, and if the Kurds were able to exploit them, their 12-year-old experiment in self-government in the north would start to look a whole lot more viable as an independent state.
The Turks, however, see this as a direct threat to their security, both because the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) used northern Iraq as a base during its 15-year war with Turkey that left more than 30,000 civilians dead, and because Turkey fears an uppity Iraqi Kurdistan would encourage its own 12 million or so Kurds to rebel.
“We are concerned about the Turkish position,” said Pire. “They have no right to have a doubt about the future of the area. I cannot explain why they have suspicions about a free life for the Iraqi people.”
And the Turkomen? What’s their angle? The Iraqi Turkomen Front and its president, Sanan Ahmet Aga, say they just want equal rights for their people, security and a seat at the political table. And the best way to get that, they feel, is to appeal to their ethnic brothers the Turks to cudgel the Kurds. This way, they can grab more political power than their numbers would normally allow. (Population numbers are pretty fuzzy, considering the last official Iraqi census was in 1957 and the Ba’athist regime routinely used fuzzy math for its own political agenda — hm — but I’ve heard estimates of the Turkomen population that range between 2 percent and 12 percent of Iraq’s population — 500,000 to 3 million people.)
Likewise, the Turks can use the image of the oppressed Turkomen, cowering behind their doors in the face of mortal threat from barbaric peshmergas and in need of Turkish protection, as a reason for them to maintain a military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurds, of course, are having none of that. “Turkey is a regional power and they have interests and they are misusing the issue [of the Turkomen] to express their interests,” said Pire. “The Turks speak of the Turkomen. But what happened to the Turkomen in Kirkuk? They weren’t targeted.”
As near as I could observe, Pire’s right on this one. The looting I witnessed yesterday in Kirkuk was pretty equal-opportunity. Homes weren’t being looted; government buildings and shopping centers were. A couple of times I saw a kids carrying tables or other office furniture while sporting the crescent-moon-and-stars-on-blue flag of the Iraqi Turkomen Front. They didn’t look too worried about their safety.
“Turkey,” he said, “is poisoning the atmosphere with their behavior.”
But to hear the Turkomen talk, perils lurk everywhere for them.
“We are in danger from the peshmergas,” said Salim Otrakchi, a political advisor to Iraqi Turkomen Front president Aga. “Al Jazeera and Arabia TV show them taking all the money from the bank in Mosul.”
The ITF wants the Turks to come in, for reasons detailed above, but worries that a small contingent of Turkish officers won’t be enough.
“We are for any administration that keeps people safe,” said Otrakchi. “But if the Americans can’t do it, let another power do it. The Americans are not prepared for this kind of work.”
He said the Turkomen were especially worried about Kirkuk because the PUK had promised it would not go into the city with its forces and it did anyway.
At this point, it’s probably a good idea just to tell you that I don’t believe what anyone is telling me at face value. The Kurds, deep in their hearts, really do want an independent Kurdistan and this talk of federalism is the practical side of Kurdish nationalism. If they thought they could get away with it, they would bolt Iraq and never look back, I think. The Turkomen don’t really feel that threatened, but they see the Kurds with their new buddies, the Americans, and worry they’ll be left out of any settlement and development plans in the north. So, they’re trying to play the Turks off the Americans to keep the Kurds in check. And the Turks … Well, actually, I believe them when they say they’re worried about their security. They’re a truly paranoid bunch.
I asked Otrakchi if the reason for Turkomen fears in Kirkuk and Mosul was the Kurds or the general disorder. Were Turkomen being targeted by anyone? Why were they deserving of special protection?
“Our people fear the power groups,” he said. “And the peshmergas have the power. No other group has power. This power is not being used to keep people secure.”
I said I saw many Kurds and Turkomen together in the park in Kirkuk pulling down the statue. And that I didn’t think peshmergas were actually in Mosul, that reports have said they stopped just outside the city while the Iraqi defenders melted away. It was the lack of peshmergas — or any other authority — that led to the looting in Mosul turning savage, if the pictures are to be believed. Again, aren’t the Kurds just as threatened by disorder and riots as Turkomen?
He asked me to make an appointment and talk to his president on Saturday morning. So I did. Maybe then I’ll get a straight answer.

Back to Iraq — at last

TEN MILES FROM THE IRAQI BORDER — J. and I are sitting in the middle of mountain valley, protected from surveillance by scrub and rocky outcroppings. Overhead the roar and rumble of bombers echoes against the mountain walls. Every now and then, we can hear the dull thuds of exploded ordinance — over Mosul? — as the sounds of the blasts roll through the valleys and off the sheer faces surrounding us. It is overcast, which is lucky. Tonight, we will ford one of the Tigris’ tributaries and then walk two to three hours on foot — with a guide — into Iraq.

Our guide is of indeterminate age, with teeth as exposed and raw as the crags of the mountains around us. In an hour, he will take us into the village below us and then across the river into Iraq. He is a good Muslim, with the heels of his shoes folded down so he can slip them on and off easily when he enters and leaves the mosque. He is looking at me as I write this, not quite knowing what to make of me. Every now and then, he makes a phone call on his Siemens cell phone. How he gets coverage out here in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea, and J. jokes that he’s on the smuggler’s phone plan, with super extended range.

The guide, whose name I don’t know and never will know, is part of a Kurdish network that has made a cottage industry of smuggling people across the border. After meeting up with N. and U. in Diyarbakir, who said they could hook us up, we spent three days in negotiations to get us across. It has cost J. and me $3,000 each, which N. is holding for us. If anything goes wrong, and we don’t check in, N. has said he will call in the cavalry in the form of the jandamra, which would be an ironic rescue, considering the three grand went a long way toward avoiding those jandarma.

The cost is high, but we’re in a hurry. Syria has closed its borders — except for night vision goggles and Arab fighters entering Iraq with the fevered wish to blow themselves up, taking a few Americans with them. Iran has been closed for some time. Getting a visa is impossible, I’ve been told. So we have decided to take the high-cost, medium-risk route across Turkey’s heavily fortified border with Iraq. We are mad.

If we are caught, it will be bad, but not disastrous. Turkey will throw us out of the country after holding us in a shitty jail cell for a night or two. And I’ll be banned from working in Turkey forever. However, compared to the stunt pulled by Philip Robertson, a Salon.com writer, who paddled across the Tigris under the cover of night after hiding out from Syria’s secret police, this scheme is the model of sanity.

We have arrived at this point through a circuitous three days. We left Diyarbakir Monday in the company of N. and U., our driver. We set out after we got our Diyarbakir district press pass, and headed for Mardin. Our plan was to head to Cizre, near the Iraqi border, stay a couple of nights, meet up with our coyotes — the smugglers — and zip across the border. It’s been a bumpy ride.

At the first jandarma checkpoint, the guards ask us where we are going, what we are doing, who are we? Mardin!, we reply, smiling and goofing. The jandarma major does neither.

“Why are you going to Mardin?” he asked.

“To see the church,” I cheerfully lied.

He finally lets us through and we hit Mardin, where we stop for lunch. And the church. It turns out that we’re being followed by the gitem, members of the network of spies and village guards the jandarma set up around southeastern Turkey during its 1984-1998 war with the PKK. The gitem get money and weapons from the Turkish government and they keep the villagers in line. You don’t want to know how.

The church is a very nice church and we ooh and ahh at the appropriate moments. N. translates for us. At any other time, I would be really impressed — and I am — but I’m also anxious to get this game going. After a couple of hours of killing time in Mardin, we leave, passing a massive propaganda message carved into the side of a mountain to the south of town. “Happy is the heart of a man who is a Turk!” it proclaims. Right in the heart of Kurdish country.

After Mardin, there’s another jandarma checkpoint. U. has told us not to be friendly, and just be cool and dismissive. I don’t think this is a good idea, but I follow his lead. We’re asked to step out of the car.

Outside this checkpoint, which is a crumbling cinderblock building that looks like it could be collapsed by a man with a truck, a plan and some concentration, there’s one of the massive camouflaged painted armored personnel carriers that the cops and jandarma use. J., being the ex-marine and a California extrovert, is immediately clambering over the vehicle while the four or five troops laugh hysterically. The major, an asiatic man with high cheekbones, asks me to sit down.

“Where are you going?” he asked. He’s already quizzed N. and U. and he’s asking me in English to see if our stories match.

“To Cizre,” I said. “I’m a journalist and want to interview the people there. I hear they’re afraid of Saddam.”

He nods and then picks up one of our party’s cell phones on the desk in front of him. Behind him, the windows of the building are shattered. Iron bars are the only thing between the outside and the inside. It’s cold, but that’s not why I’m shaking.

He makes a phone call to the Sirnak jandarma post, the regional HQ, apparently. They’re checking our press credentials. He smiles at me. “In five, ten minutes, Christopher, you go to Cizre.”

“Great!” I said, and stood up.

“You will sit down, please,” he said. I did.

The major wanted to ask me a few more questions.

“Your name is Christopher, no?”

I nodded. “Evet,” I said. Yes.

He paused to think for a moment. Then he looked at me again.

“Who is that actor, in ‘Back to the Future’? With Michael J. Fox?”

“Christopher Lloyd?”

“Yes!” he said.

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. The last time I was here, the authority figures of the region exhibited an intense curiosity combined with the air of menace. Here, being in charge means being feared.

After I explained the plot as best I could of the three movies — you have no idea how difficult that is, even with a translator — he asked me to explain the rules of American football. So I did, again, as best I could, turning yards into meters and downs into turns. He was thoroughly confused and by the time I got to the concept of a lateral pass, he’d had enough. He called the Sirnak station again.

After a moment he turned back to me. “Bye bye,” he said and smiled.

Finally, we continued to Cizre, arriving after dark at the Hotel Onsar. Walking in, it might as well have been the Al Rashid in Baghdad. Journalists as far as the eye could see. N. and U. got a room and J. and I got one. For the next two days, we would negotiate safe passage with the coyotes to take us to the border. Finally, on Wednesday morning, we were off.

On the top of a mountain overlooking Cizre, we said our goodbyes to N. and U., and piled into another taxi with two Kurdish men who didn’t speak English. After a short taxi ride, we were put into the back of a truck with high side panels that kept people from seeing in. Our drivers motioned us to stay still and quiet, and we would slip through more jandarma checkpoints. After 45 minutes of traveling, we stopped again, and got into the original taxi. We’d dropped our gitem tail.

After another two hours through spectacular countryside, framed by majestic, snow-capped mountains on all sides, our drivers dropped us in the field and left us with the guide. We’re leaving in 15 minutes. When next I write, I should be back in Iraq.

Technical issues resolved

CIZRE, Turkey — Thanks to the extremely helpful folks at Iridium, the sat phone is again working. Sorry for the radio silence, but it finally ended on a hotel’s rooftop in southeastern Turkey after Ilfan, the bellhop/electrical engineer (I’m not kidding), spliced an extension cord to provide power while I alternated between cursing the cruel fates for creating satellite technology and calling Iridium and talking to either Chad, Adam or Karl. We’re on a first name basis now. Adam finally found the magic formula and we’re back up and running. Thanks also to J., who has some experience with Windows machines.
It’s now very late. Tomorrow is a big day. More reports will be forthcoming.

Diyabakir sadness

DIYARBAKIR — Sunday night in Diyarbakir is actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds. Emre has become our constant companion, translating for us, joking with us, showing us around. And while J. and I wait for our press passes, Emre decided to cheer us up by taking us to a Kurdish bar. Leading us down rickety wooden stairs, as soon as he opened the door, the zinging sounds of the saz and the wailing, eerily beautiful singing style of the musician swirled around us.

DIYARBAKIR — Sunday night in Diyarbakir is actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds. Emre has become our constant companion, translating for us, joking with us, showing us around. And while J. and I wait for our press passes, Emre decided to cheer us up by taking us to a Kurdish bar. Leading us down rickety wooden stairs, as soon as he opened the door, the zinging sounds of the saz and the wailing, eerily beautiful singing style of the musician swirled around us.
Emre and I sat and talked while J. luckily found a friend in a Kurdish engineer. While they happily discussed Diyarbakir’s building codes and earthquake preparedness, Emre told me about the music.
The singer played a saz, a lute-like 7-stringed instrument with a long neck and deep body. With the addition of electronic distortion on the sound, the strumming and picking took on a droning, trance-like sound, almost like a bull-roarer but higher pitched. A backdrop of green and red fairy lights, the Kurds’ national colors, framed him. The bar itself was low, covered in Kurdish weavings, the walls covered by muslin. Above my head hung an ancient rifle.
“As I walk over the snows…” sang the musician, and groups of young men rose to clasp hands, link arms and joined in the traditional circle dance called the halay. They jumped and stomped in complicated unison, as the performer sang of love, fun and freedom.
“This is a song of freedom,” Emre told me. It sounded sad and longing. Only the men danced and sang on this one, and some in the audience even held their lighters aloft. I giddily thought of rock and roll shows in America. On the other songs, women joined in.
Freedom for Kurds seems always to be a dream for this people, and it’s a sad one for seemingly being out of reach. There’s a wistful tone when they speak of northern Iraq, which they never call Iraqi Kurdistan, as if they can’t bring themselves to say the word for fear it will disappear in a cloud again. The Kurds of Iraq have created something wonderful the Kurds in Turkey feel, but it is a fragile thing, protected only by the United States and Britain for as long as it’s useful to them. After Saddam is gone, what then?
Turkey has massed thousands of troops on the border, and every day seems to bring new confusion from Ankara as to whether Turkey will or won’t reinforce its troops in Iraq — said to number between 3,000 and 17,000, although Mehmet, the journalist, told me 13,000.
If the Iraqi Kurds are allowed some measure of autonomy in a post-Saddam Iraq, some Kurds in Turkey worry that the Turks will move in after the Americans leave, to “preserve security” as the government says every day.
And so they sit in a smokey bar in Diyarbakir, drinking chai, surrounded by the smells and sounds of a nation without a country. Their songs of freedom are songs of mourning, both for what never was and likely will never be.