Iraq's Kurdish and Turkmen minorities are unnerved that a recent standoff between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army could turn into clashes, undermining stability in the country's Kurdish-run north and leaving the Turkmens in the middle of a debilitating conflict.
Tension has been mounting in Iraq as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region began sending troops last week to an area over which they both claim jurisdiction. On Saturday, a Kurdish military official said peshmerga troops and tanks had been sent to the Kirkuk area to block the road to the disputed city to the Iraqi troops.
Although the confrontation seemed to be easing on Monday, Kurds and Turkmens of northern Iraq are on tenterhooks. The Kurds are worried that the prospect of a war between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces is already taking its toll on the Kurdish region's economic stability, while the Turkmens fear they will suffer as a result of collateral damage from a Kurdish-Arab war.
A delegation from the Kurdish Ministry for Peshmerga Affairs is expected to have talks today with Iraqi military officials in Baghdad to resolve the tension following mediation by Iraqi Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi. The two sides will discuss ways to ease the tension and set guidelines for the withdrawal of Kurdish and Iraqi forces from areas where they are currently in a standoff, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs Jabbar Yawar told the Anatolia news agency.
The Iraqi government and the Kurdish administration have been at loggerheads over the formation of a new command center for Iraqi forces to operate in the disputed areas, called the Dijla Operations Command. Kurds consider the Dijla Operations Command as a threat and an attempt by Prime Minister Maliki to seize control over the oil rich territories along the internal border that demarcates the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. Maliki, on the other hand, says the Dijla Operations Command is necessary to keep order in one of the most volatile parts of the country.
The tension took a new turn about a week ago when Iraqi troops went after a fuel smuggler who had taken refuge in the office of a Kurdish political party in Tuz Khurmato, 170 kilometers north of Baghdad, sparking a clash with Kurdish peshmerga fighters in which one passerby was killed.
The Turkmens, the third biggest ethnic group in Iraq after Arabs and Kurds, are concerned that they will end up paying the price for a Kurdish-Baghdad conflict, given their status as a community with no military force for self-defense. “The Turkmens will pay the biggest price because, unlike all other Iraqi groups, we have no militia force,” Hasan Turan, an executive board member of the umbrella group, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC). “We have no armed forces yet we are in the middle of the conflict zone,” he told Today's Zaman, urging Turkey “not to remain a bystander” as long-running tension risks turning into clashes.
Most of Iraq's Turkmen population lives in northern Iraq and the areas whose control is a matter of dispute between Arbil and Baghdad. In fact, the site of the recent flare-up, Tuz Khurmato, is a predominantly Turkmen town. Turkmens share close ethnic and linguistic links with Turkey, which threatened in the past to declare war on the Kurds if they violated Turkmen rights.
But the relations between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds have improved drastically over recent years, replacing the talk of war on Kurds with impressive economic cooperation. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has been at loggerheads with Maliki, has blamed the Shiite prime minister for the recent tension with the Kurds and Erdoğan himself warned that Maliki's policies could lead to a sectarian conflict in Iraq.
According to Hicran Kazancı, the Turkey representative of the ITC there are signs that the tension is subsiding but Turkey should keep channels of communication with all sides open so as to establish lasting peace. “Because we do not know what tomorrow will bring in the region where balances are very delicate,” Kazancı said.
Iraqi Kurds are Sunni while Turkmens are not monolithic in terms of sectarian identity.
Turan said the fact that there are both Shiite and Sunni Turkmens does not mean they are divided along sectarian lines. “We know how to act united when it comes to issues of strategic importance,” he said.
Kazancı said Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmato will be affected most seriously in the event of clashes between the peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army and called for the formation of armed forces that will include Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmato for the protection of these areas.
Stability at risk in northern Iraq
In the Kurdish-run northern provinces of Arbil and Dohuk, residents are worried that their hard-won stability and economic prosperity will disappear as the prospect of an armed conflict with the Baghdad government loom.
“Stability is our priority. Possibilities of a military confrontation harm the stable atmosphere,” said a source close to the Kurdish administration, complaining that it is getting increasingly difficult to convince investors to keep their investments in northern Iraq.
Northern Iraq has been the most stable region of Iraq since the US-led war in 2003. Stability has gradually brought prosperity and economic development, as well as foreign investors from a number of countries, including Turkey. According to Mohsin Hassan, who sells sports equipment, the recent tension has brought back the fears of the past. “Every time we hear the noise of a plane, we look up to the sky with fear to see if warplanes are flying above us,” he told Today's Zaman in Arbil. “There were similar disputes in the past years but this time it is different. We have never been that close to an armed conflict before,” he said.
In Dohuk, tension is less visible and business seems brisk. Residents complain about Maliki's policies but say war as a means to resolve the disagreements should be avoided. “There could be war if it is necessary but we want a political solution,” Bawer Ibrahim, a member of the peshmerga, said, adding, “It does not mean we are afraid of war.”