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Turkmen People Struggle to Find Role in New Iraq - 2004-08-05

Iraq is a multi-ethnic society, but the Arab and Kurdish ethnic groups are the ones most talked about. In the north, another group, the Turkmen people, are struggling to establish themselves as a real political force. But after decades of oppression, they are finding it is still an uphill battle.

The headquarters of the Iraqi Turkmen Front is tucked away on a side street in northern Baghdad. Few residents of the neighborhood seem to know it is even there.

That relative obscurity mirrors the plight of the Turkmen people in modern Iraq. They consider themselves the country's third-largest ethnic group, but nobody seems to know how many Turkmen there are in Iraq, and the country's dominant Arabs know little about the Turkmen culture.

The head of the United Turkmen Front, Faruk Abdulrahman, says his people have been oppressed for decades under Saddam Hussein's regime, and even before.

He recalls a litany of atrocities suffered by the Turkmen people over the years, starting with 1958, when the bodies of 33 Turkmen were dragged through the streets of Kirkuk for three days.

Mr. Abdulrahman points to a series of large, grainy black-and-white photographs hanging on the wall of his office.

"In 1980, Saddam executed the five Turkmen leaders whose portraits you see there," he says. "The one in the middle was my father."

Just about all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups suffered persecution under Saddam. Anyone who was deemed a threat was wiped out. But the Turkmen people faced more than just Saddam's prisons, torturers and executioners. They also faced a concerted effort to deny their very existence.

Mr. Abdulrahman says the census does not reflect the true population of Turkmen because of Saddam's policies. He says most Turkmen could not register themselves as Turkmen, and had to declare themselves either Arab or Kurdish.

Turkmen people were not allowed to speak their language in public. Activities as basic as buying a car were not allowed. The Turkmen representative on the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council was Songul Chapook. She says Saddam described this policy as "correcting" Turkmen ethnicity.

"So, many Turkmen who had jobs, they started to change their ethnic, or correct their ethnic to Arabic, because they felt that, if they didn't do this, they will be out of their job, and they will lose their house, their money, everything," she adds.

The irony is that Saddam's policies are still affecting the Turkmen political enfranchisement.

Turkmen leaders do not believe the Saddam-era census is anything like a real reflection of their numbers in Iraq today. But when then-U.S. administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, set up the Governing Council, he had to use the numbers available, which put Turkmen at between three and four percent of the Iraqi population. That is why Mrs. Chapook ended up as the only Turkmen on the Council.

She acknowledges that her appointment, as a woman and a political independent, did not please the Turkmen political parties.

Although there is a Turkmen representative in the current interim Iraqi government as well, the Turkmen people themselves are still a mystery to most other Iraqis, and a vaguely threatening one at that.

In a tiny cafe in central Baghdad, university professor Moayad Nima al-Saaedi says he thinks of Turkmen as part of what he calls "the Iraqi mosaic." He admits he and other Arabs from southern Iraq do not know much about the Turkmen at all.

"We know the word Turkmen, but who are the Turkmen?" he asks. "What is their culture like? We don't know anything about them except their name."

In the Saddam era, the only thing Mr. al-Saaedi ever heard about the Turkmen was what his local religious and community leaders taught. They said that the Turkmen belong to Turkey, and would want to secede from Iraq if given the chance.

"Our leaders told us that giving the Turkmen their rights would tear apart our national unity," he adds.

Turkmen leaders deny that they have any aspirations to break away from Iraq. Mrs. Chapook says their place is here.

"So, we belong to Iraq, and we have a history in Iraq as you know," she explains. "We ruled Iraq for a long time, more than 750 years. So, we don't say we are the rulers and everything is for us. But we lived here, and our fathers lived here, so we cannot belong to another place."

Back in the office of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Mr. Abdulrahman says Turkmen want to play a positive role in building the new Iraq. His group issued a statement last week emphasizing that the Turkmen will defend Iraq, and think of it as their home, whether it is stable or in chaos.

But as the Turkmen are trying to carve out a place in the national political scene, they are running into problems in their stronghold, the northern city of Kirkuk.

In the old days, Saddam encouraged southern Arabs to move to the largely Turkmen city, in an effort to change Kirkuk's demographics. Today, a new wave of migration is bringing Kurds to Kirkuk, and tension among the three ethnic groups has frequently erupted into violence. Kirkuk remains Iraq's most multi-ethnic city; the problem for the future is whether all three peoples can learn to live together in peace.