Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the country and it was designated as a disputed area by Iraq's 2003 constitution.
In the last weeks, tensions have increased in Kirkuk after the local provincial council decided to conduct a referendum to determine whether or not it would be governed by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In fact a referendum on whether Kirkuk province should become part of the KRG was initially scheduled for November 2007, but has been delayed repeatedly due to the political crisis in Iraq.
Thus following the decision, Turkmen and Arab residents of Kirkuk took to the streets to demonstrate the local council's decision to hold the referendum, which was condemned Turkey as well.
Daily Sabah spoke with Erşat Salihi, a member of Iraq's parliament and leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF). Salihi said this referendum, which lacks a legal basis, will not only be far from representing the real condition of Kirkuk, but it will bring more issues as it is an imposed decision.
Describing the current situation in Kirkuk like a powder keg ready to explode, Salihi underlined that the Turkmens are preventing it from exploding.
Commenting on KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani's statement, "No party has the 'sole right' to decide the future of the city of Kirkuk," Salihi said the statement appears to indicate a diplomatic effort to ease Turkey's reaction. He cautioned that this statement could just be a smoke screen and does not necessarily indicate that the KRG is giving up their intentions to annex Kirkuk.
Reminding close ties between Turkey and Iraqi Turkmens, Salihi said that so far they have not demanded any military support from Turkey, however, he stressed that if the situation escalates, Turkmens will demand military support not only from Turkey, but also from the U.S. and Europe.
The Kirkuk Provincial Council decided for a referendum on the annexation of the city to the KRG. How do you evaluate this decision?
These decisions are illegal. Kirkuk is a fragile region; a unilateral rule is unacceptable. The decision is invalid as it was taken while Turkmens and Arabs were boycotting the city council. Moreover, according to Article 21 of Law on Provincial Administration, which was ratified in 2010, the Kirkuk City Council does not have the authority to pass laws; the Iraqi Central Administration can object to these laws.
Therefore, it is not a binding decision. According to this law, provinces and provincial councils have certain authority; however, as there were not any elections in Kirkuk in 2005, this provincial council is unauthorized. Due to Kirkuk's special condition, this was included in the law.
Why did the KRG take such a step? What is your take on these developments and their timing?
We can definitely say that the timing is not ordinary. Certain kinds of projects are being realized in the Middle East, step by step. The conflict in Syria, (the People's Protection Units) YPG's formation, instigations, Daesh's movement from Syria to Iraq, various structuring within Iraq, massacres committed on the Iraqi people… all are being done for a certain project. The creation of a new shockwave is being planned in the region, especially towards the end of the Mosul offensive.
Kirkuk is currently like a powder keg, ready to explode. It is us, Turkmens, who prevent it from exploding. For many centuries, Kirkuk has been a city where various ethnic groups such as Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds cohabited; however, the KRG has been taking steps to systemically change the demographic structure of the city for some years now.
The Arabization policy during Saddam's reign had negatively impacted both Kurds and Turks. Now, after this policy, there is a Kurdization policy; this policy continues to affect both Arabs and Turks. Hence, the demographic balance of the region faced immense changes. If steps are to be taken to return Kirkuk back to its original demographic structure, we would not oppose the referendum. Kurds have said this themselves; they have brought around 800,000 people to Kirkuk.
In 2003, the population of Kirkuk was 850,000; according to the latest census, which was realized last month, there are 1.6 million people in the city. Half of the population consists of Kurds, while the other half is constituted by Turks and Arabs. If there is to be a referendum in the city, it will definitely result in the favor of Kurds.
This is an unacceptable situation; even if the referendum is to be held under pressure and at gunpoint, Turkmens and Arabs will not be passive and will find an alternative route. This is an issue of territory and life. We cannot allow them to lay waste to a city that originally belonged to Turkmens. Our only aim is to prevent this unlawfulness and possible massacres.
This referendum, which lacks a legal basis, will not only be far from representing the real condition of Kirkuk, but it will bring more issues as it is an imposed decision.
Let's suppose the referendum is held and it results in Kirkuk being annexed by the KRG. Would this outcome cause a conflict between Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs?
It would, definitely. We could have had a conflict even now, if we were not levelheaded. They are threating us with arms.
Their message is clear: "We can do anything and everything we want and we will have these lands."
In such a situation, Turkmens will not just stand idle. We believe that Turkey will not stay silent in protecting Turkmen lives and the territorial integrity of Iraq. Arab countries of the region would also intervene and an inevitable civil war will ensue. We have experienced these armed threats in previous weeks. Armed people have been wandering on the streets and firing their weapons. They have toured Kirkuk with PKK flags and terrorized the population; all of these happened right in front of the eyes of the mayor. We will not stay silent. We will be ready to do whatever is necessary to protect our lands.
KRG Prime Minister Barzani made a statement where he stated, "As President Erdoğan has said, the future of Kirkuk will be decided not only by Kurds, but by Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds altogether." It seems to be an attempt to calm the situation in Kirkuk. How do you evaluate Barzan's statement?
It is a statement of cheap rhetoric which does not fit Nechirvan Barzani. It only aims to reduce Turkey's reaction. This statement is not a step back. They continue to claim that Kirkuk is a territory of Kurdistan. The KRG has not renounced its aims to annex Kirkuk. Turkey should not take this cheap statement seriously.
I believe the Kurdistan Democratic Party has been deceived by the forces wanting to redesign the Middle East. For many years, Turkey has been the biggest supporter of the KRG and also its lifeline. If the KRG does not take a step back from the Kirkuk issue, this tension will also affect its relations with Turkey negatively. This would be a tremendous loss to the KRG.
Following this crisis, you met with Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, Foreign Affairs Ministry officials and representatives of political parties in Ankara. Can give us information about these meetings?
We have come as the guests of Turkey's prime minister. After having a meeting with the prime minister, we met with high-ranking officials of ministry of foreign affairs. Lastly, we talked with party leaders, representatives of research centers and academics.
The message they all conveyed is clear: the ruling party, the opposition and the Turkish people are on our side. We have seen a support that is unprecedented. We want to see this support in practice as well, especially after April 16. Political relations with the Iraqi central government must be revitalized, especially regarding Kirkuk's situation.
On the other hand, Turkey and Iran are important actors of this region; for this reason, we expect Turkey to do more. However, this issue is not only about Turkey; if Kirkuk is the pulse of the whole Middle East, where are Iran and the Gulf countries? None of the Arab countries have made a statement regarding this issue. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with U.S. ambassadors and U.N. representatives, rejected the demand for annexation. International and regional powers have always stood with us. The only thing left for those who are pushing this referendum is to listen to the demands of Turkmens and Arabs, instead of trying to impose their own proposition.
Iraq's territorial integrity is also crucial for Turkey. I believe the crisis between the Iraqi central government and Turkey caused by the Bashiqa Camp is temporary. Turkey is determined in certain matters and they have been there only to provide security. We would like Turkey to stand together with not only Turkmens, but everyone. Nevertheless, we asked Turkey to stand with us. If Shias can rely on Iran, if they can rely on Sunnis in the Gulf countries and Kurds in the U.S., then the Turkmens should be able to rely on Turkey.
If we leave our land without any effort, the following generations will be left landless. If a people don't possess land, they cannot have a future. Therefore, I want to remind all Turkmens living in Turkey that we are connected with our land and these lands are the future of our children. Please don't forsake your land for a comfortable life in Turkey, as the time for resistance has come.
As Iraqi Turkmens, what do you expect from Turkey? Do you have adequate political support? If not, do you want Turkey to be on the ground with its military or for it to provide you with financial aid?
We have not demanded any military support from Turkey; however, if the situation escalates and we start to lose both people and land, we will demand military support from not only Turkey, but from the U.S. and Europe as well. We would not want to use these weapons against our own people, especially Kurds. Our common enemy is Daesh. Hundreds of Turkmens and peshmerga have been martyred in the fight against Daesh. We should all unite and once again jointly fight against Daesh. Instead of pointing our weapons to each other, let's point them at terrorists. Most of the duty falls onto Western countries. We are not trying to blame them; we are only calling them to aid us. There is a human tragedy in the region and we are asking them to not stay silent. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are all human beings.
In the previous days, both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım signaled a possible operation on PKK bases in Sinjar. They have said that such an operation may be commenced in the following days. In terms of timing, do you believe there is a connection between Turkey's operation on Sinjar and what has been transpiring in Kirkuk?
Sinjar is more of an international issue. It concerns Syria, the PKK and (the Democratic Union Party) PYD. All of them are interconnected. This fact should not be disregarded. The events taking place in Sinjar are definitely related with Kirkuk and Tuz Khormato. For this reason, we have to be strong in those regions. In terms of weaponry, economy, manpower and culture, Turkmens should ready themselves.
Are there different points of view among Turkmens? For instance, we know there are Turkmens who position themselves closer to Iran. What are their approaches to the Kirkuk issue?
Bearing all responsibility, I will say this: Turkmens are the most close-knit and united group within Iraq. However, certain people or groups are always trying to present Turkmens as divided. You can ask the same question to Turkmen deputies who are Shias and they will answer the question as I did. I can easily speak for them as we have a singular Turkmen strategy.
Yes, there are those who are closer to Iran and those who are closer to Turkey, politically speaking. Yet, this is not a contradictory situation. We have a certain strategic position. Regarding the Kirkuk issue and Tuz Khormato and Tal Afar's future, Turkey and Iran are on the same page.
Let's talk about Kurds of the region. When we look, the PKK and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) are active in the region. In Sinjar and other regions, there are conflicts between the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the PKK. To what extent could these divided Kurdish groups cooperate in relation to the Kirkuk issue?
The Kurds can never become united; as their will is within the grasp of another force, they will only act according to the will of that force. Maybe PUK imposed its politics and policies onto the other groups, I am not sure. I shudder to think what could happen if they control the rich oil reserves of Kirkuk; the region might suffer a horrible bloodbath.
Talking about Kirkuk oil, we know that there is a disagreement between the PUK, KDP and the Iraqi central government. The PUK and the central government signed numerous agreements, however, it was immediately followed by the flag crisis. Do you believe they will step back in the case of an agreement that satisfies all parties?
They have first commenced the oil crisis and tried to show that they are the dominant power there. They have challenged the central government. Baghdad's weakness created more opportunities for them. They would want to share the oil wells among themselves.
Do you think Iran might be the force behind the KRG's attempt?
If Iran has done such a thing, they should be aware that this will also hurt them. There might be an intention to strengthen the KDP against the PUK; however, it might also be a trap set for the KDP. They might be aiming to distance Turkey and the KDP, thus weakening the KDP. Then, certain regions, especially like Sinjar, might fall under the control of the PKK. There are games within games. The KDP should have been more careful; however, they were unable to do so. They acted in an emotional and impulsive way.