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Last Updated:  Monday, 10 March, 2003, 13:17 GMT
Turkmen fears of Iraqi conflict

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Irbil, northern Iraq

Children playing at the citadel in Irbil
Since 1991 Turkmen have enjoyed relative freedom
The Kurds of northern Iraq are deeply apprehensive about Turkey's expressed intention to send its troops across the border into the area of northern Iraq the Kurds control.

The Turks have made it clear their aim is not to fight Saddam Hussein's army, but to pursue Turkey's own interests.

One of the reasons given by Ankara is the need to protect Iraq's Turkmen minority, thought to number around 2.5 million in all of Iraq.

But many of the Turkmen themselves seem to have little desire to see the Turks intervene.

Looting fears

Khalis Yunis is a Turkmen who runs an antique shop in Irbil.

He has a keen eye for relics from the Ottoman period, when the Turks ruled this whole area until just after World War I.

But even he has no desire to see the Turks come back again.

"We don't want any outside state to interfere in our affairs," he says.

"They'll spoil things for us. We're sitting here quite peacefully and safely, everything's OK.

"Even if the Turks came, they wouldn't be able to protect us against looting and theft, which is our main worry."

Little enthusiasm

A number of Turkmen families live in almost mediaeval conditions up in the ancient citadel which towers over Irbil, among them Qani'a Qader Mohammad, her husband Abdullah and their daughter.

Today, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkmen, enjoys all the same rights as Kurdish and other citizens... so there is no justification at all for the Turkish army to intervene on the pretext of saving the Turkmen
Turkmen community affairs minister Jawdat Najjar
Here too, there is little enthusiasm for Turkish intervention.

"We don't want Turkish troops to come," Qani'a says.

"Why should we? Why do they want to come - to destroy our homeland and country, to cheat us and beat us?"

The Turkmen have a lot to lose these days.

They have their own schools, teaching in their own language. They also have television and radio stations, newspapers and political parties.

Turkish 'pretext'

All this would not have been possible before 1991, when the Kurdish uprising took the area out of the Baghdad government's control.

A soldier guards the headquarters of the Pro-Turkish Turcoman Front
A Turkish presence is "imperative", says the Turkmen Front

So says Jawdat Najjar, a Turkmen who is minister for his community's affairs in the Kurdish-dominated regional government which runs this part of northern Iraq.

"Under the Baghdad government, the Turkmen used to be deprived of all the privileges of an Iraqi citizen," he says.

"But today, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkmen enjoy all the same rights as Kurdish and other citizens.

"So there is no justification at all for the Turkish army to intervene here on the pretext of saving the Turkmen," he adds.

'Presence needed'

There is only one Turkmen body actively arguing for Turkish intervention, called the Turkmen Front.

It has its own militia, believed to number around 500 fighters.

Critics say it is both financed by Turkey ($300,000 per month is quoted widely as being the sum involved) and takes its orders from Ankara.

Its leader, Sanan Ahmet Aga, insists the Front is independent.

He recites a list of attacks on its offices by armed Kurds, saying this proves a Turkish "presence" is needed.

"If there are violations against us now, when there is relative security, what will it be like when there's an attack on Iraq, and everything's turned upside down?" he asks.

"If there's war, a Turkish presence will become not just necessary, but imperative."

Winds of war

That is certainly not the view taken by Turkmen merchants at the Qayseria bazaar in Irbil, where many of the shops are run by Turkmen.

Anti-Turkish demonstrators holds up sign at protest in Irbil
Turkmen do not want trouble, but fear they may have no choice

Business in the bazaar has already been affected by rumours of war, and people do not want more trouble.

"We don't want foreigners to intervene in our country," says Mohammad Wali, a Turkmen goldsmith.

"Whether we're Kurds, Arabs or Turkmen, we live together. We don't want anyone to come here, we'll solve our problems by ourselves."

Although it is impossible to carry out a reliable opinion poll, the strong impression is that there really are not many ordinary Turkmen in northern Iraq who want to see the Turkish army march in to protect them.

But like all the other Iraqis who fear they are about to be caught up in the winds of war, they may have no choice in the matter.

Bids for autonomy

Ankara is insisting that its troops must enter northern Iraq as a condition for allowing US troops to pass through Turkey to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein's forces.

There is no suggestion that the Turks would be going to fight the Iraqi leader's army.

Turkish leaders have made it clear their main aim is to ensure the Iraqi Kurds - who have been running their own affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan under western air protection since 1991 - are unable to take any steps towards independence.

The Kurds in turn believe Turkey's objective is to rob them of the freedom they have enjoyed for the past 12 years, and have hinted strongly that their peshmerga guerrillas will fight to defend it.

The Kurds insist they are not bidding for independence, but only for regional autonomy within a federated, democratic Iraq - a goal espoused by the entire Iraqi opposition, including Sunni and Shia Arabs.


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