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.