Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have recently locked horns over the latter's independence referendum held on Monday, Sept. 25, and the status of Kirkuk has brought the two sides to the verge of battle both economically and militarily.
The northern Iraqi city has been a hotbed of friction as Ankara vehemently contests Irbil's ambition to absorb Kirkuk into a possible independent Kurdistan. Ali Mehdi is a Turkmen born and raised in Kirkuk. Still recalling the memories of the city in the 1970s and early 1980s, he sighs over how the city has been demographically and culturally transformed into a ruin of ethnic and sectarian clashes.
"We had Turkmen neighborhoods such as Gavurbaghi, Hasasu, Korya and Tisin. Turkmen weddings used to be celebrated across the city. Graveyards, mosques and bathhouses used to belong to Turkmens," Mehdi said. "All doctors and pharmacists were Turkmens."
The story of how the balance in the city swayed from Turkmens to other ethnicities dates back to the 1980s. Saddam Hussein began the Arabization of the city and masses of Arabs were brought in.
As KRG President Masoud Barzani is gearing up to call Kirkuk a Kurdish city in the wake of the referendum, which resulted in overwhelming support for separation from Iraq, Mehdi claimed: "Kurds did not even used to live here 30 to 40 years ago."
Mehdi is not alone in his yearning for the past. Yalman Haceroğlu is also a Turkmen born and raised in Kirkuk. Running a small Turkmen TV channel in the city, Haceroğlu said a process starting in the 1980s and changing course in 2003 ripped Turkmens from their hometown.
Traumatized by Saddam Hussain's Arabization of Kirkuk, the American invasion in 2003 dealt another staggering blow to the lives of Turkmens. "Turkmens were not even allowed near Kirkuk. Our hands were tied," Haceroğlu said.
After the KRG gained autonomy, history repeated itself in Kirkuk. Kurdish villages suddenly appeared and tens of thousands of Kurds were brought in. The new Iraqi constitution, established two years after the invasion, snapped Turkmens. Ershad Salihi, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC), has vivid memories of this.
"Turkmens marched in the hundreds of thousands to Baghdad in 2005 when the new constitution was formed. We conveyed our concerns. Where was everyone?" Salihi said. "Turkmens have been silenced. What will they tell future Turkmen generations?
Similar to the Arabization of Kirkuk, Kurds swiftly started to dominate significant posts in the city. "There is a union of Turkmen doctors, but the head of the union is a Kurd. There is a union of pharmacists, yet the head of it is a Kurd. The situation is that ironic and tragicomic," Haceroğlu said.
Today, the city is on a knife-edge. The people of the city are divided into Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab neighborhoods. Some claim an eruption of violence is not far off if the KRG proceeds with the plan to include the city into an independent Kurdistan, as each ethnic group patrols the streets with heavy weapons.
Salihi acknowledges that Turkmens are far outnumbered and out armed by Kurdish and Arab forces. "We need military power more than anyone else. Sure, there is modest Turkmen manpower, but we do not really know how long it could go on like this."
A voluntary Turkmen soldier patrolling a Turkmen neighborhood, Yilmaz Öztürk has the answer: "Until we die fighting. We will not leave our lands. We will fight until the very end."
Öztürk asserted that he has two more lives to sacrifice for his hometown. "I have two sons. If I fall, they can take over the defense of our lands."
Turkmens consider the Kurdistan referendum a maneuver to grasp what they say has been theirs for decades. "It is an invasion in our lands," Salihi said.
The Kirkuk strife may lead to more than clashes between neighborhoods. Ankara recently voiced its grave concerns regarding the status of Kirkuk and the future of Turkmens. "Just as we liberated Jarablus, al-Rai and al-Bab from Daesh in Syria, if need be we will not shy away from such steps in Iraq," Erdoğan said. "We may come overnight suddenly."
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also pointed to a military operation if Turkmens are harmed. "The military option depends on developments. If there were to be any action against our Turkmen brothers and sisters, then right away."
Ankara's backing does not entirely relieve Turkmens, but the possibility of military support is interpreted as promising. "We cannot achieve anything on our own here should Turkey not take action. We rely on them," Haceroğlu said.
"Anything could happen at any time because Barzani's armed gangs are doing their best to spoil the peace and order in Kirkuk. Feared clashes are not a daydream if precautions are not taken," Salihi said.