January 21, 2007

Kirkuk - Tinderbox in the north

Kirkuk is Iraq's fifth largest city, home to about 750,000 residents. It is an amalgam of the various ethnic groups that comprise Iraq - Kurds (the majority), Turkomans, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. The oilfields around Kirkuk hold about 20 percent of Iraq's proved oil reserves.

The Turkomans claim that they number over two million in Iraq (700,000 in Kirkuk governorate alone), making them about seven percent of the population and the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Arabs and Kurds. Turkomans are descendants of the Turkic-speaking Oguz tribes from Central Asia. They inhabit a swath of Iraq from the Syria-Turkish border area southeast to the Iranian border east of Baghdad, a buffer zone between the Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north.

Turokomans are regarded as ethnic Turks by the government of Turkey. Both Turkey and the Turkomans regard Kirkuk as a Turkoman city. Despite attempts by Saddam Husayn in the 1980's to "Arabize" (ta'rib) the city by moving Kurdish and Turkoman families to desert areas in the south and moving Arab families into their homes, the city always remained Kurdish and Turkoman. After the fall of Saddam Husayn, the Kurds embarked on a program to recast the city as the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. As part of that effort, former Kurdish residences have been forcibly reclaimed, raising complaints of ethnic cleansing. Some of the reclaimed residences have displaced Turkomans as well as Arabs.

Turkey has threatened to come to the defense of their "countrymen" in Kirkuk, hinting at a military incursion into northern Iraq. Incursions by the Turks into northern Iraq are nothing new. When I served in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996, there was usually a Turkish armored brigade garrisoned south of Zakhu, ostensibly to prevent fighters of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from using northern Iraq as a safe haven.

In the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül:

“Iraq is a different country, but this does not mean we will remain aloof to the fate of our relatives there. Kurds and Turkomans in northern Iraq are our relatives. We will keep a close eye on the situation if Turkomans come under pressure."

The Turks believe the United States has not taken enough action against suspected PKK camps in northern Iraq, nor has it taken adequate steps to protect the Turkoman minority in Kirkuk. Should Turkey decide to intervene militarily in Kirkuk, it will be difficult. The Turks have a large and capable army, but Kirkuk is over 100 miles inside Iraq, even further by roads through the mountainous terrain. A confrontation between two American allies will not help the already difficult situation in Iraq.

Surely the Turks would hesitate to invade a country in which the United States in waging a counterinsurgency. They're an ally, right? Let's look back to 2003 and Turkey's refusal to allow the United States to use its territory for the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division to move into Iraq, after granting passage for the division to begin moving across southern Turkey. If you want to be an ally, you have to act like an ally.

Ankara, stay out of it. You had your chance.