by Merry Fitzgerald

Europe-Turkmen Friendships 



Good morning ladies and gentlemen, first of all I would like to thank Minister Brigitte Grouwels and Deputy Brigitte De Pauw for giving me the opportunity to speak about the plight of the Turkmen women in the Middle East.

I am not a Turkmen by birth, but being married to an Iraqi Turkmen and having lived in Kerkuk and Baghdad in the 1970s, the Turkmens’ plight is close to my heart. Since 1991, I have assisted my husband in his efforts to promote the Turkmens’ cause in the EU by informing the Belgian politicians and the Members of the EU Parliament of the grave problems Turkmens are facing in Iraq. I have also tried to give the Turkmens more visibility on the internet through my blogs and association ‘Europe Turkmen Friendships’.

The Turkmens are a Turkish people, they are the descendants of the Turkish OGHUZ tribes originating in Central Asia. They arrived in Iran, Iraq (Mesopotamia) Syria and Turkey  in successive waves. Turkmens are also present  in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.

They settled in Mesopotamia (Iraq) 1.400 years ago. They built principalities/states (Atabegs) and ruled over several regions in Iraq, Syria and Iran for several centuries.

Turkmen communities rose to prominence as administrators, merchants and politicians during the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and under the Ottoman Empire.


In Iraq the Turkmens are around 3 million (population of Iraq: est. 33 million)

In Iran Turkmens are between 2,5 and 3 million (population Iran: est. 78 million)

In Syria they are around 3 million (population Syria: est. 22,5 million)

It is impossible to give their exact numbers, as no recent reliable census has been made in these countries, and also because of the assimilation policies by the nationalist Arab rulers in Iraq and Syria and by the Persian dominated authorities in Iran.

The situation of the Turkmen women in Iraq today cannot be dissociated from the history of their country since WWI. It is therefore necessary to give a brief account of the history of the Turkmens there, the reasons why the Turkmen region was occupied by the British after the end of WWI and why it has always been coveted by the Arabs and Kurds since the establishment of the Iraqi State in 1921.

History of Iraqi Turkmens (Mesopotamia)

Turkmens are the third largest ethnic component in Iraq Their first recorded existence as ‘Turks’ in Iraq was in 632 AD.

The Turkish era began in the Middle East in 1055 when the Caliph of Baghdad declared the Seljuk commander Tughrul Beg as a “Sultan”.

In Iraq the Turkmens established 6 states: The Seljuks, the Atabegs of Mosul, Erbil and Kerkuk, the Ilkhans, the Jalairids, the Qara Qoyunlu, the Aq Qoyunlu, they ruled Iraq during 453 years.

The Safawid Turks ruled Iraq for 41 years and the Ottoman Turks ruled Iraq from 1534-1623 (89 years) and from 1638-1918 (280 years)

Thus, the total direct Turkish/Turkmen rule in Iraq lasted 863 years, until the end of WWI.

The Turkmen region in Iraq, called TURKMENELI, lies between the Kurdish region in the northeast and the Arab region in the southwest. It stretches from Tel Afar in the northwest of Iraq at the Syrian border, through Mosul, Erbil, Altun Kopru, Kerkuk, Taza Kurmatu, Daquq, Tuz Khurmatu, Kifri, Khanaquin, Badra and Al-Aziziya southeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border.

The largest concentration of Turkmens lives in the city of Kerkuk, which they consider as their capital city and main cultural centre. There is also a large number of Turkmens in Baghdad.

Before WWI the majority of Turkmens were living in the cities, where they had businesses and shops. They had a high number of intellectuals and lived a peaceful and prosperous life.

However, since the beginning of the Iraqi State in 1921, Turkmens were treated as second class citizens, their basic human rights were denied and their leaders and intellectuals were massacred. As a consequence, they were no longer able to develop and they became poor. Because they were not allowed to have their own armed militias to protect themselves, as the Arabs and Kurds, they were left defenceless.

.           Minimizing the Turkmen presence in Iraq

During the Ottoman era, Iraq was administratively divided in three (3) provinces: Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. “Mosul Province” (“Mosul Vilayat”) covered the entire north of Iraq (the present six governorates of Ninewah, Erbil, Suleymaniya, Dohuk, Salaheddin and Kerkuk).

During WWI, the British occupied Basra and Baghdad provinces and the southern part of the Mosul Province. A cease fire was declared on October 30th 1918. However, despite the cease fire the British army occupied the city of Mosul on 11th November 1918 which created the “Dispute of Mosul” between Turkey and Britain which lasted for 8 years.

The British wanted to detach Mosul Province from Turkey for economic and geopolitical reasons – essentially to control the oil reserves of Kerkuk – in order to facilitate the separation, they minimized the Turkmen presence there.

Exhausted by 11 years of continuous wars since 1911, Turkey opted for peace and good relations with the west, relinquishing it’s claim on the Mosul province at the Ankara Treaty of June 5, 1926. Mosul has been officially incorporated into Iraq since then. From that date on the problems of the Turkmens intensified. 

The successive Iraqi governments were haunted by the paranoia that Turkey would claim it back one day. This fear led them to continue marginalizing the Turkmens, on the suspicion that they might support Turkey in case Turkey claimed back Mosul. Although Turkmens were loyal Iraqi citizens they were barred from high and sensitive government positions. They were discriminated and subjected to assimilation policies.

The last reliable census in Iraq was held in 1957 under the Monarchy, according to this census, the Turkmen population was 567.000 when the entire Iraqi population was 6 million. This means that Turkmens represented about 9% of the Iraqi population.

In 1958 the Monarchy was overthrown and Iraq was ruled by the military with the support of the Iraqi Communist party, which included a large number of Kurds within its ranks. A new constitution was issued in which Kurds were declared as ‘partners of the Arabs’, whereas the Turkmens were not mentioned. The Kurdish leader Barzani was brought back from his exile in Russia and he claimed the oil rich Kerkuk to be the capital of his proposed ‘autonomous Kurdistan’. This was rejected by both Turkmens and Arabs.

As Kurds persisted in claiming that Kerkuk was a Kurdish city, tensions rose between the original inhabitants of Kerkuk, the Turkmens, and the Kurdish newcomers to the city. On 14th July 1959 a massacre of the Turkmens took place in Kerkuk, it lasted three days during which the leaders and intellectuals of the Turkmen community were arrested and savagely murdered by the Kurdish militia and Communist party members.

In 1963 the military regime was toppled in another coup d’état, led this time by the Arab Nationalists and Baath party.

In the following census the number of Turkmens was minimized in the official records and their population was recorded as 2%.

Under the Arab Nationalist Baath party (1963-2003) application of double standards continued and on 24th January 1970 Turkmens were granted ‘cultural rights’, while the Kurds were given ‘autonomy’ in 3 northern provinces on March 11, 1970 and the Turkmen city of Erbil was made their capital. All those major concessions were given without asking the Turkmens.

Demographic changes in Turkmeneli

Turkmeneli is a region which contains fertile agricultural lands and also large oil and gas reserves. For centuries, the famous ‘eternal flames’ of Baba Gurgur near the city of Kerkuk were an indication of the presence of oil and gas.

In order to weaken the Turkmen presence several demographic changes took place in the Turkmen region in the north of Iraq, a great number of Assyrians, Arabs and Kurds were settled in Kerkuk, between 1921 and 2011.

After WWI Iraq fell under British Mandate, the British immediately started to develop the oil industry in and around Kerkuk. This necessitated a large work force and a great number of Assyrians, Kurds and Arabs were brought to Kerkuk from other provinces to work in the oil industry.

This was the beginning of important demographic changes in the Turkmen region and especially in Kerkuk province.

Other demographic changes took place under the Arabization policy of the Baath regime in the 1980s which installed tens of  thousands of Arab families in Kerkuk city and Kerkuk Province giving them financial incentives, jobs and agricultural lands.

Several Turkmen villages were totally destroyed and their inhabitants were forcedly displaced, their agricultural lands were confiscated thus they became  homeless and without any resources.

The agricultural lands belonging to Turkmens were given to Arabs from neighbouring regions by the government. Today, twenty-seven (27) years later, Turkmens are still waiting to receive compensation for their losses and have still not recuperated their agricultural lands.

 ‘Turkmen’ as a nationality was removed from the official census forms. Turkmens had to choose between either becoming Arabs or Kurds. They had to declare “change of nationality” to Arabic in order to get jobs. Real estate sales were banned amongst the Turkmens. Sale could only be done to Arabs. The use of the Turkish language was banned in public and government offices.

The largest demographic change happened in Kerkuk and surrounding Turkmen towns under U.S. occupation in 2003 when the Kurdish leaders Messrs Barzani and Talabani brought over 600.000 Kurds from other areas in Iraq and even from neighbouring countries to be settled in the city.

On 10th April 2003, the US forces authorized the Kurdish militias to advance far beyond their “Autonomous Region” established in the three governorates in the north-east of Iraq (Duhok, Erbil and Suleymaniya) and  to invade and occupy the other governorates of the north of Iraq (Kerkuk, Mosul, Salaheddin and Diyala) where the majority of Iraqi Turkmens live. When they entered Kerkuk the Kurdish Peshmerga occupied all the official buildings, they put fire to the land registry office and destroyed the records and state archives.

Today there is ongoing pressure by Kurdish and Arab authorities to shift the Turkmen population to different areas to continue the demographic change. Numerous incidents of encroachment and seizure of government and private Turkmen land by Kurdish families have been reported. These Kurdish families receive financial assistance from the Kurdish Regional Government to build houses on these lands.

In almost all Turkmen regions, from Tel Afar to Khanaqin and particularly in the oil-rich province of Kerkuk, the demographic structure was changed with the intention to gain ground for Kurdish authorities.


Amidst all the violence, absence of security and dire living conditions it is not easy to be an Iraqi or Syrian Turkmen women today. They are facing huge problems in their daily lives as their countries are in big turmoil. A large number of Turkmen women in Iraq and Syria are now internally displaced or living in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The main problems the Turkmen women in Iraq and Syria are facing are: lack of security, shortage of electricity, water and food, forced displacement, destruction of their homes, lack of medicines and difficult access to medical structures, difficult access to higher education and discrimination in the job market. Consequently, these women are extremely vulnerable and their future looks very bleak.

The Turkmen women in Iraq, being part of a community that has been discriminated and marginalized since the creation of the Iraqi state in 1921, did not get their fair share of their country’s wealth and they did not have the same opportunities with regards to education and employment as their Arab and Kurdish compatriots.

They have known hardship under the Monarchy and under all the successive Iraqi regimes. They suffered during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) when their husbands and sons were sent to the front to be used as cannon fodder.

Like all Iraqi women, Turkmen women suffered enormously under the 12 years of economic sanctions (embargo) imposed on the Iraqi people by the U.S. and the U.K. The lack of medicine and food caused the death of over 500.000 children under the age of 5 and the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Turkmen women also suffered under the US-UK occupation of their country, especially when the occupation forces attacked the Turkmen cities under the pretext of fighting Al-Quaeda, causing destruction and many deaths.

Today, like all women in Iraq, Turkmen women face challenges with gender-based violence and discrimination in law and practice, including equal rights under the law, access to employment, and participation in decision-making positions in parliament, government and in social and cultural contexts. However, Turkmen women face the dual challenge of being targeted both for their sex and their ethnic identity.

There is not a single family in Iraq which has not lost one or more family members either in the war or in terrorist attacks, due to years of war and political instability, 10% of households are headed by females who are widowed, divorced, separated, or caring for sick spouses. They represent one of the most vulnerable segments of the population and are more exposed to poverty, food insecurity, as a result of lower overall income levels. 14% of Iraq’s population are orphans.

Thousands of Turkmen widows whose husbands were killed in terrorist attacks are struggling to survive and feed their children as they are not receiving any help or pension from the Iraqi government. When they request help from the government all they get is a file number after they have introduced their dossier.

One of our nephews aged 45 and one of his sons aged 12 were killed in a terrorist attack in September 2012, leaving a widow and 5 children aged between 2 and 16. His widow has requested help from the government, but all she has received to-date is a file number. The eldest son aged 16 had to abandon his studies and had to look for work in order to feed his mother and his younger sisters and brothers.

Since 2003 growing clashes over territorial disputes between Kurdish and central government forces have increased the threat of violence against Turkmens, who continue to be targeted. Thousands of Turkmen civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks.


According to the U.N. the maternal mortality rate in Iraq is 84 deaths per 100,000 live births it is the highest in the region. Of all maternal deaths, 80% can be potentially avoided by interventions during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, but only 37.9% of married women 15-49 years who gave birth during the past five years in Iraq received postnatal care by a qualified person.

Of Iraqi women, 35% perceived their health status to be bad or very bad and 48% of women reported difficulties in receiving health care from governmental health institutions due to lack of money to pay for services while for 41% it was difficult to reach the service.


Access to adequate education and particularly to instruction in the Turkmen language is limited in many Turkmen communities. Many teachers and schools do not receive any budgetary support from the Ministry of Education, they suffer from a shortage of materials and resources, including books, scientific equipment, computers and other technology.


In Iraq, only 14% of women are working or actively seeking work, this is mainly due to lack of security. Several of our nieces living in Kerkuk, who are College and University graduates, are obliged to stay at home as they were not able to find a job in Kerkuk because they are Turkmen and because the lack of security and transport prevents them from seeking work outside the city.

In Kerkuk and other Turkmen cities which are now under Kurdish control, qualified professional Turkmen women are being refused jobs in Universities and Administrations, just because they are Turkmen. We have a 32 year old niece who is a pharmacist and whose job application at the University in Kerkuk has been refused because she is Turkmen.

It is always very hard to be a woman in a war torn country but it is even more so if one lives in a country where one is considered as a second class citizen, sadly this is the situation of the Turkmen women in Iraq and Syria today. Turkmen women in Iran, like their sisters in Iraq and Syria are victims of discrimination and assimilation and their future looks also bleak.

I hope that the Belgian authorities and decision makers will give their urgent  attention to the plight of these women whose voices have been stifled for too long.

I thank you for your attention.

Merry Fitzgerald

Europe-Turkmen Friendships

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