The massacre of Turkmens in Kerkuk on 14th July 1959.

July 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Posted in Turkmens | 2 Comments
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Turkmen martyr5

The massacre of Turkmens in Kerkuk on 14th July 1959.

 Excerpt fromAmong the Others – Encounters with the forgotten Turkmen of Iraq

by Scott Taylor*

 (posted with the authorization of the author)

By the time King Faisal II conducted the national census in 1957, the majority of the Turkmen population was already feeling oppressed by the Baghdad authorities. Many of the Turkmen who participated in the process filed false returns by listing themselves as Arabs to avoid further persecution. Prior to and during the census, leading Turkmen activists were seized and interrogated by the police.  Gathering places frequented primarily by Turkmen nationalists, such as cafés and clubs, were either shut down or kept under surveillance in an effort to intimidate them. The efforts were largely successful as the official census record shows just 137,800 registered Turkmen.


However, the Turkmen were not the only ones weary of the political situation, whereby King Faisal II imposed British policy in exchange for military protection.  By 1958, the quest for independence had manifested itself into a popular movement led by Abdul Karim Kassem. Once ignited into open revolution, the troops loyal to 23-year-old King Faisal II offered little resistance.  Kassem quickly secured power, declared himself prime minister, pronounced Iraq to be a Republic and ordered the execution of Faisal and his top officers.

At this point the ties to Britain were officially cut.


The Turkmen of Iraq had actively supported Kassem’s July 14 coup and hoped that in the wake of colonial rule a new order could be established wherein all ethnic groups received equal opportunity and representation. To demonstrate their support for the new President, tens of thousands of Turkmen deliberately ignored the existing curfew and drove to Baghdad from Kirkuk, Mosul, Erbil, Telafer, Tuz Kurmatu and numerous smaller villages.


Abdul Kassem welcomed the crowd of Turkmen, and received their leaders inside the main hall of the Ministry. Playing to the assembled crowd, the self-appointed prime minister assured the Turkmen that the ‘new Iraq’ would be a Utopian world where “all ethnic groups in Iraq were brethren and the Turkmen would be given every consideration by the new regime to enable them to enjoy full citizens’ rights.  As proof of his sincerity to respect the Turkmen minority, Kassem released the previously suppressed census data which showed their actual numbers to be 567,000. Encouraged by these developments, Turkmen intellectuals began to publish their own weekly newspaper in both Arabic and Turkish entitled Al-Bashir (“The Bringer of Glad Tidings”).


However, the honeymoon between the newly liberated Turkmen community and Kassem’s administration did not last long. To complicate matters, trouble also started brewing between the Turkmen and rival Kurdish warlords…….


One of the first clashes occurred on October 25, 1958, when Mulla Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish tribal chief insisted on entering Kirkuk.  Turkmen mobs protested his arrival but the tension between the groups grew and street fights broke out between Barzani’s Kurdish followers and the Turkmen.  During the riots, Major Hedayat Arslan, the popular Turkmen commander of the military police, suffered a massive heart attack and died.  Although it was not directly caused by the Kurds, the Turkmen blamed Barzani for the death and staged four days of massive protests to demonstrate their anger.


At the same time, the communist movement was sweeping across Iraq, unions were gaining political power and Abdul Kassem was having difficulty keeping his own military officers under control.


When Kassem seized power in Iraq in 1958, the CIA established a covert cell known as the “Health Alteration Committee”. In addition in plotting Kassem’s assassination, the American conspired with their Turkish counterparts on a number of military contingency plans.  Dubbed Operation Cannonbone, a joint U.S.-Turkey task force was to invade northern Iraq and seize the oilfields should a disruption in Iraqi oil exports ever occur.


One of Kassem’s key initiatives was the development of the international association which became known as Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).  This vital commodity cartel held its first meeting in Baghdad in September 1960.  Such a development was obviously not considered to be in America’s long-term best interest.


Against this explosive international backdrop, Kassem’s regime faced a more serious challenge from within.  Following an aborted coup attempt, Nadhim Al-Tabakchil, the commander of the 2nd Army Division in Kirkuk was relieved of his command.  His replacement, Brigadier Dawood Al-Janabi, immediately initiated a crackdown on Turkmen nationalism.  One of his first directives was to close down the Al-Bashir newspaper – just 26 weeks after it had begun publishing. Under Janabi’s instructions, the military police conducted weapons searches and seized the private arsenals of many Turkmen political leaders. Once again teachers and intellects were rounded up, many arrested and shipped off to Baghdad.


The Kurdish communists were given a free rein by Al-Janabi, and they soon began a campaign of violence against the Turkmen of Kirkuk. Out of fear and frustration, a delegation of Turkmen sought an audience with Abdul Kassem in Baghdad to advise him of the deteriorating security situation in the north.


Armed with the propaganda pamphlets and hate literature that had been openly distributed by the Kurdish communists, Kassem was persuaded to remove Brigadier Al-Janabi from power in Kirkuk.  Although this move angered the Kurdish communists and the followers of Chieftain Mulla Barzani, Prime Minister Kassem personally assured the Turkmen delegation that their security was a priority.  In June 1959, Kassem overturned many of the deportation orders that had been issued to the Turkmen dissidents, and they were free to make their way back to Kirkuk from their brief relocation.


What the Turkmen did not realize was that Kassem’s promise of a safe environment was not being respected by the Kurds.


On July 14, preparations were being made all across Iraq to celebrate the first anniversary of the new republic.  Kassem’s government had issued a decree urging numerous organizations and ethnic groups to participate as a show of solidarity.  The Turkmen leaders responded by organizing a march through the streets of Kirkuk.  Labour unions, civil service organizations, professional guilds and student groups all encouraged their constituents to attend the official march, while many other smaller associations planned their own general processions.


However, as the ranks of the various parades converged at the head of Atlas Street, near the main marketplace, the Kurdish followers of Chieftain Barzani sprung their well coordinated trap.


Scattered throughout the Turkmen marchers were scores of Barzani’s gunmen posing as demonstrators.  At a pre-arranged signal, they threw down their banners and pulled out hidden firearms.  As machine gun bullets ripped through the densely packed crowds the terrified people dispersed.


In the midst of the chaos, Kurdish assailants began to execute a methodical program of brutal assassination by searching out prominent Turkmen activists: many of these individuals were hunted down in their homes.  The lucky ones were killed outright, while the unfortunate ones were dragged into the streets, their legs tied to the bumper of a car and then dragged at high speeds until their bloodied bodies resembled sides of freshly butchered meat.


Caught by surprise at the scale of the Kurdish attack, the local authorities issued a curfew, but there were too few policemen to actually enforce the directive.  As the police and soldiers bunkered down, the Kurds continued to rampage throughout the streets of Kirkuk.  Turkmen businesses were looted and burned, and both the landmark Atlas and Al-Alamain movie theatres were destroyed by mortar fire.  With the entrances to the city blocked off, the carnage continued unabated for nearly three days.  Although the military commander had notified Baghdad of the ethnic clashes and requested reinforcements, it was the heroic action of Abdullah Abdul Rahman that finally restored order.


At great personal risk, Rahman escaped from Kirkuk and travelled to Baghdad.  Only after a personal meeting with Prime Minister Kassem was attained did the Iraqi ruler realize the gravity of the situation.  Kassem then dispatched a brigade of infantry to Kirkuk.  However, even after the soldiers arrived to help restore order, the Kurds continued to hamper efforts to bring the fires under control. Although they did not use their weapons on the soldiers, the Kurds blocked the streets and prevented fire engines and ambulances from entering the central square to clear away the now bloated, rotting corpses.


By July 18, order had been restored and the casualty count tallied. In total 25 Turkmen, most of them political activists, had been killed and 140 wounded.  Prime Minister Kassem released photos of the mass graves and destroyed buildings and vowed to take harsh revenge against the perpetrators of the massacre.


Describing the Kurdish attacks as “barbaric”, Kassem also expressed his condolences to the Turkmen people, whom he describes as “peaceful and traumatized citizens”.


A government commission was convened to determine who was responsible for the massacre. Many senior military officers testified that complicity had existed between members of the army and the Kurds, and that, at the very least, warning signs had been deliberately ignored.  Nevertheless, the commission did not hold the government in any way accountable.  Twenty-eight Kurds were later convicted for their part in the massacre and sentenced to death.



Note: Scott Taylor, is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist, he is the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps, an Ottawa-based magazine.

Ref. of the book: ISBN 1-895896-26-6


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  1. thank you for informing us the realities may God bless you.

    • Thanks. The Turkmens’ plight can no longer be ignored by the politicians and media, both inside and outside Iraq. Turkmens have played an important role throughout Iraq’s history and it’s high time they enjoy rights equal to those of the Arabs and Kurds in today’s Iraq. Arabization and Kurdification policies are unacceptable and belong to the past. It is also high time that Turkmens are adequately compensated for the confiscation of their properties and agricultural lands under the chauvinistic Baath regime.

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