Arbil is a hot topic on Turkey’s agenda. The second instance of the Kurdistan-Iraq Oil & Gas Conference was held Dec. 3-5 in Arbil at a time when the tension between Arbil and Baghdad shows no sign of letting up. Despite the fact that Baghdad managed to prevent Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız from attending, Ankara politically supported the conference.
A delegation of Arbil Turkmen visited President Abdullah Gül in Ankara on Dec. 6 in this time of crisis between Baghdad and Arbil, the latter of which is backed by Ankara. It did not garner much media attention because of the country’s busy agenda, but the efforts of the president’s Middle East adviser, Erşat Hürmüzlü, in making the visit possible should be acknowledged.
As a matter of fact, this visit was important in several respects. First, it was the first official visit made by Arbil’s Turkmen to Turkey. Second, the Turkmen delegation was received by President Gül, i.e., at the highest level possible. Third, Turkey stressed the importance of the visit by receiving the delegation in the Ambassador Reception Hall at the presidential palace. The Arbil Turkmen had intended to visit Ankara with a larger delegation. However, Turkey requested they restrict their delegation to 10 because there are 10 seats allocated to guests, positioned to the right side of the president, in the Ambassador Reception Hall, following its renovation in 2009.
Arbil was essentially a Turkmen city. “Hewler,” the proposed Kurdish name for Arbil, is etymologically a Turkish word. It is a modified form of “evler” (houses), used in the time of the Seljuks, to refer to a cluster of houses within a city. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is estimated to govern a population of about 4 million, including 250,000-400,000 Turkmen. The Turkmen want to live in Arbil as it is their hometown. They don’t want to be referred to as Kurds who speak Turkish.
Arbil’s Turkmen suffered under great pressure during the Saddam era and when Iraqi Kurds were at odds with Turkey. When Saddam Hussein was at the helm of the country, Turkmen villages and lands were targeted by Saddam’s nationalization agenda, which included appropriating Turkmen property and relocating the people. Under the rule of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, Arbil’s municipal borders were expanded several times and, in the process, the lands belonging to the Turkmen were seized by the state. The luxury neighborhood known as “Italian Village” in today’s Arbil as well as a number of shopping centers were built on those seized Turkmen lands. There were other problems as well. For example, the Turkmen have not yet been compensated for their homes in the Citadel of Arbil that the state forced them out of. “Today, a Kurdistan flag waves at Citadel of Arbil, but the houses at the castle were ours in the past; they will be ours in future,” Turkmen say.
Arbil’s Turkmen say they do not want a conflict with Kurds. They intend to live in peace with Kurds. They send their children to Kurdish and Arab schools instead of Turkmen schools so that they can be find jobs more easily. In contrast, the schools opened by Turkmen and Turkish foundations are preferred by Kurds who want their children to develop business ties with Turkey and Turks in the future.
The lack of tension between Ankara and Arbil is a relief for Arbil’s Turkmen. However, they complain that they do not benefit from the positive political, cultural and economic relations between Ankara and Arbil or the resulting spread of wealth in the region. Indeed, the Turkmen do not have their own TV channels or radio stations in Arbil; they only publish a biweekly newspaper called Saray that is regulated by the Kurdish government.
The final remarks I will include here come from a distinguished Turkmen poet from Arbil, Nesrin Arbil, who wrote, “We were the grains of an ear, but violent winds dispersed us over lands and countries.”