The Struggle of the Turkmens


By Orhan Ketene

Union of Diaspora Turkmens (UDT) Coordinator


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By Orhan Ketene

Who are the Turkmens?

The Turkmens are a Turkic people living in Iraq, mostly are concentrated in Northern Iraq and parts of Central and Southern Iraq
(East of Himrin Mountains and North of Jazeera desert is Northern Iraq).
They are the second largest nationality in Northern Iraq after the Kurds and the third largest in Iraq after the Arabs and the Kurds.

The areas of Northern Iraq where Turkmens live is called Turkmeneli
The Turkish speaking Turkmens currently inhabit a diagonal line that starts from Telafer in the north on the Syrian border eastward to Musul, Erbil, then southward to Kerkuk, Khaneqin and Bedre on the Iranian border.

The Arabic speaking Turkmens exist in every major city of Central and Southern Iraq.

Turkmens used to be the majority in Northern Iraq, but due to political and military reasons, continuous population exchange of the Turkmens with the Kurds from Iran and the Arabs from Arabian Iraq over the centuries, reduced the Turkmens nowadays to one third of the Northern population.
Currently their population is estimated at 2.5-3 million.

Kerkuk-Political and Cultural Center

Their political and cultural center is the city of Kerkuk which is the center of the oil wealth of Northern Iraq.

Usually they work as professionals or in agriculture.
They have the highest ratio of educated people than any other community in Iraq.
The largest Turkmen tribes are the Bayat and Qara Qollu (Qaraghulli).
They are non-violent, peace-loving and friendly people.

Turkmen Cities

Other Turkmen cities are Telafer, Musul, Erbil, Altun Kopru, Tawukh, Tuz Khurmatu, Kifri, Qara Teppe, Qaraghan, Qizlarbat, Khanaqin, Mendeli and Bedre.
They also exist in Baquba, Baghdad, Tikrit, Ramadi, Aziziyya, Mahmudiyya, Iskenderiyya, Yusufiyya, Kut, Hilla, Diwaniyya, Nasiriyya and Kerbela.

The Place of the Turkmens in the Turkic World

 – Oghuz = Turkmens
Western Turkmens: Turkey, Cyprus,
Western Syria, Eastern Bulgaria, Western
Thrace (Greece), Dobruja (Romania),

Gagavuzia & Gok Oghuz (Moldova),
Central Turkmens: Azerbaijan, Southern
Azerbaijan (Iran), Southern Iran (Qashqais),
Turkmeneli-Northern Iraq, Northern
Caucasia (Russia)
Eastern Turkmens: Turkmenistan,
Southern Turkmenistan (Khorasan-Iran)
Southern Turkistan(Afghanistan)
– Karluks : Uzbeks (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan
Southern Turkistan (Afghanistan)
Uyghur(Eastern Turkistan-Northwest China)
– Kipchaks: Kazaks (Kazakistan and
EasternTurkistan), Kirghiz,Karakalpaks of
Uzbekistan, Tatars (Tatarstan, Crimea,
Siberia), Bashkurts, Karachays, Balkars, Kumuk
and Nogays of Northern Caucasia (Russia)
– Siberians: Altay-Sayan (Tuvans, KhakasiaAltais)
and Sakha-Yakutians (Russia)
– Chuvashians: Chuvashia (Russia)

The Position of the Turkmens in the Turkish World

Iraqi Turkmens

History of the Turkmens in Iraq

The Turkmens came to Iraq from Turkestan (Central Asia) and particularly from today’s Turkmenistan, in successive waves.

The first recorded document of their existence as “Turks” in Iraq was in 632 AD in a peace treaty of “Banuqia”, between the Turkish prince Bozbörü Sülübay and Khalid Bin Walid, mentioned in the book of “Mu’jamul Buldan- Dictionary of the Countries” written by the Muslim historian Yaqut Al-Hamawi who mentioned about the existence of several Turkish principalities in Iraq and emphasized on two of them in central Euphrates called the Banuqlu and Batuqlu which were allied with the Sassanid Persian Empire.

Turks took high positions up to the level of prime ministry in the Sassanid Empire and portrayed the fiercest resistance against the Islamic Arab conquest of Iraq.

The high military capabilities of the Turkish soldiers attracted the attention of the muslim Arabs, so, the Umayyad Arab Empire recruited large numbers of Turkish military experts from Turkestan (Central Asia).
They became highly influential in the army and the administration of the Abbasid Empire which followed the Umayyads.

The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad asked for the help of Tughrul Beg, the chief of the Seljuk Turks to remove the Persian Buwaihids who dominated Baghdad for a century. In 1055 the Caliph of Bagdad declared Tughrul Beg as a “Sultan” (the master of power) and from that day on, the Turkish era began and the Turks became the rulers of the Middle East.

The Turkish Era in Iraq

The word Turk and Turkmen became synonymous in the Middle East, one means the other.

 The Turkmens established 6 states in Iraq:

1- The Seljuk Empire: 1055- 1149 94 years
2- The Atabegs (of Musul, Erbil and Kerkuk): 1149- 1258 109 years
3- The Ilkhans (Mongol and Turkish mix): 1258- 1336 78 years
4- The Jalairids (Mongol and Turkish mix): 1336- 1360 24 years
5- The Barans (Qara Qoyunlu) : 1360- 1469 109 years
6- The Bayindirs (Aq Qoyunlu): 1469- 1508 39 years

. The Safawid Turks of Azerbaijan ruled Iraq: 1508- 1534 26 = years
1623- 1638 = 15 years
Total : 41 years
. Ottoman Turks ruled Iraq until the end of WWI: 1534- 1623  89 years
1638- 1918   280 years
Total: 369 years
. Total Direct Turkish/Turkmen rule: 863 years


The Turkmen identity of today’s Northern Iraq was so evident, that it was known as “Turcomania” by the European geographers such as William Guthrie who issued his famous map of the Middle East in 1785 in London, Great Britain.

Map of Turcomania (Turkmenia) in 1785
By British Geographer William Guthrie
Magnified map of Turcomania
Showing Kerkuk

The Contributions of the Turkmens to the Iraqi Civilization

Turks, then known as Turkmens were defenders and builders of Iraq for over a millennium.

During the Seljuk era, Nizam-ul Mulk, the prime minister of the Seljuk Sultan Melik Shah, built the first university in the world in Baghdad, in 1127 AD, called Al-Mustansiriyya, which stands even today.

Turkmens defended every part of Iraq against all foreign invasions for more than 1500 years. That is why they are spread all over the country.

The Atabegs of Musul were the first state in the Middle East to react to the greatest European invasion in history, the Crusades, which lasted for 200 years. Nureddin Zengi the Atabeg of Musul built the leaning minaret mosque in 1172 AD.
The “Gok Kumbet”(Blue Dome) a tomb of a Turkmen princess “Bugday Khatun” in Kerkuk castle surrounded by a school, reminder of the Bayindir (Aq Qoyunlu) Turkmen state era (1469- 1508).
The “Chol Minare”(Desert Minaret) built by Muzaffereddin Gokboru the Atabeg of the Beg Tigin Atabegs of Erbil in 1200 AD. In which Erbil lived its’ golden age. It was the center of wealth, prosperity and science.

End of the Turkish Era:

During the Ottoman era, Northern Iraq was called the “Musul Province”.
In WWI, the British occupied Basra and Baghdad provinces and the southern part of the Musul Province.

Cease fire was declared on 1918. However, the British army occupied the city of Musul on Nov. 11, 1918 which created the “Dispute of Musul” between Turkey and Britain which lasted for 8 years.

The Resistance:

The people of Musul resisted occupation through a series of revolts;

After 6 months from the occupation, the first revolt was started by the Soran Kurds of Suleymaniya in May 1919. Followed by The Turkmen revolt in Telafer in June 1920 which spread to the whole of Iraq. Followed by the revolt of the Behdinan Kurds in Imadiya in March 1921.

In June 1922, all peoples of Musul (Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs) united under the command of  Shafiq Ozdemir, the administrator of Rawanduz, who won the victory of “Derbend” on August 31,1922, against the British army, liberating most of the mountainous parts of Musul. This resistance was the longest one and lasted until April 1923.
However, all those revolts were suppressed by the overwhelming British military power, especially the Royal Air Force and the use of poisonous gas.

Shafiq Ozdemir, the guerrilla leader of the Musul Resistance

The Breaking of the Resistance:

– In August 1921 the British installed Faisal as a king in Iraq, Turkmens of Kerkuk refused allegiance and the Kurds of Suleymaniya refused to participate in the referendum.
– The cooperation between Kurds and Turkmens was creating big problems for the British to establish their authority in the North. So, they divided the two by promising the Kurds a separate Kurdistan. Most of the Kurds stopped fighting thus breaking the resistance.

– The first mass killing of the Turkmens happened on May 4th, 1924 in Kerkuk by the British Army legionnaires called the “Levies” who killed 100 Turkmens in one day.

– To pacify the North and the Turks, the British prepared a very liberal constitution for Iraq in 1925, where the country had 3 official languages (Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish) with full rights for all minorities.

Musul Incorporated into Iraq:

– Exhausted by 11 years of continuous wars since 1911, Turkey, opted for peace and good relations with the west, relinquishing its’ claim on the Musul province at the Ankara Treaty of June 5, 1926.
– Musul was incorporated into Iraq since then.
– The Ankara Treaty gave the people of Musul, one year to choose Iraqi or Turkish citizenship. Turkmens choose to remain in Iraq and become Iraqi citizens as long as their constitutional rights are respected.

The Start of the problems for the Turkmens in Iraq

The Monarchy Era (1921-1958) 37 years

Although Turkey declared that it was no longer interested in Musul anymore, the successive Iraqi governments (even today) were haunted by the paranoia that Turkey, one day, would reclaim it back.

This fear lead them to marginalize Turkmens, on the suspicion that they might support Turkey in case Turkey reclaimed back Musul. Although Turkmens were loyal citizens they were barred from high and sensitive government positions.
Kurds continued rebellions as the British did not fulfill their promise of establishing Kurdistan.

The first demographical change was the settlement of the Assyrians in Kerkuk in a newly built suburb called “New Kerkuk” in the Arafa district, as employees of the oil field facilities.
After becoming a sovereign country and entering the League of Nations in 1932, Iraq amended the 1925 constitution to remove Turkish from the official languages.

The second demographical change occurred as the Arabization policy started with the settlement of the Bedouin Arab tribes west of Kerkuk in the Hawija district in the Forties.
Kerkuk, Erbil, Khaneqin and Kifri were still majority Turkmen cities.

However the third demographical change happened after the Barzani rebellion was suppressed in 1949. Vast numbers of rebel Kurdish villages were destroyed and the villagers forcefully settled by the Iraqi government in those cities. Thus changing the ethnic balance.
In 1957 a census was conducted and the results declared in 1959, showed the Turkmen population at 567.000 when Iraq was 6.5 million. Although the 400.000 Turkmens of Musul and Diyala were not counted. Turkmen population then was 950.000.

The Communist Era (1958-1963) 5 years

The monarchy was overthrown by the Communists in 1958. In a major policy shift towards the minorities, they declared the Kurds as partners of the Arabs, whereas the Turkmens, who remained loyal citizens, were discriminated against and were left as a minority. Thus, a double standard between the two peoples was applied.

Kurdish leader Barzani was brought back from his exile in Russia. He claimed the oil rich Kerkuk to be the capital of his proposed autonomous Kurdistan, which was rejected by the Turkmens.
Turkmens in Kerkuk were attacked by the Communist and Kurdish gangs. All main Turkmen figures were killed in a three day long massacre. It was only stopped by the Iraqi army which came from Baghdad upon fears of Turkish intervention.

President Qasim, tried to appease the Turkmens. He declared that the Turkmens were one million (Iraq was 7 million) and promised to persecute the criminals who conducted the Kerkuk Massacre.

Turkmens formed a secret organization and assassinated a number of Kerkuk massacre criminals.

It was understood that a quick ethnic cleansing of the Turkmens might trigger a Turkish intervention. Therefore, the method was changed to “Minimize them in the official records”. To ignore the reality and manipulate census records to suit the political purposes.
The formerly declared census results were ignored and the Turkmen population was officially recorded as 2% (140.000).

The fourth demographical change in Kerkuk was; building of the “Iskan” suburb east of Kerkuk for the Kurds by president Qasim. Although this concession did not stop the Kurds from rebelling again because the government refused to give them Kerkuk.

The Arab Nationalists Era (1963-1968) 5 years

To appease the Turkmens, president Abdusselam Arif ordered the execution of the Kerkuk massacre criminals.
Barzani continued rebellion with military and intelligence help from Israel which was aiming at weakening Iraq on the Palestinian issue.

The Ba’ath Era (1968-2003) 35 years

Application of double standards continued. On January 24, 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 Iraqi people.

The fifth demographical change was; building of the Azadi settlement for the Kurds, East of Kerkuk.

Kurds continued their rebellion because the government refused “again” to give Kerkuk. This time they were aided by Iran which was after Iraqi border concessions.
Major crackdown on the Turkmens started after a nationwide demonstrations by the Turkmens protesting the reluctance of the authorities in the application of their cultural rights.

The Four top leaders of the Turkmens were hanged on January 16th 1980. Followed by a spree of arrests, torture and executions among the Turkmen rights advocates.

Turkmenian speaking was banned in public and even on phone conversations.

Turkmens as a nationality were removed from the official census forms. Turkmens had to choose from either becoming Arabs or Kurds.

Turkmens, 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.

Turkmens were even banned from repairing their own houses.

Under the pretext of city planning, buildings resembling the Turkish era, were either demolished or modified. The 3000 year old Kerkuk Qal’a (fortress) which was a symbol of Turkmen architecture was demolished.

The sixth demographic change was in the form of settlement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Kerkuk by the government.

Turkmen villages and districts inside and outside Kerkuk were demolished; inhabitants were resettled in central and southern Iraq.

The Exiled Opposition and the Safe Haven Era (1991-2003) 12 years

The Iraqi army massacred over 100 Turkmens in the district of Altun Kopru in March 1991.

Free from Saddam’s dictatorship, The “Safe Haven” in Northern Iraq was supposed to be a good model for a democratic and free Iraq. This system was intended to be transferred into the rest of Iraq after liberating from Saddam.

Until 1996 Turkmens thrived in Erbil, they formed their own political parties, free media, democratic institutions and even their own defense militia.

However, after the intervention of the Iraqi army to help Barzani against Talabani on August 30, 1996 in Erbil, 56 pioneers of the Turkmen movement were executed by the Iraqi intelligence.

Barzani took over Erbil from Talabani. This time, supported by the U.S. and U.K., he converted the “Safe Haven” into Kurdistan and tried to impose authority upon the Turkmens, regarding them as a minority of Kurdistan. Intimidations and clashes with the Turkmens began.
Turkmens focus was shifted from helping their brethren under Saddam, into resisting Barzani’s demands of submission in Erbil.
Barzani, who was made a major player in the exiled opposition activities and armed with a veto power and Despite the desire of the Americans and other opposition figures to include the Turkmens, he blocked every effort and prevented the Turkmens from being major players in the opposition activities.

The same old tactic of marginalization was used. It was claimed that the Turkmens were a small minority, that they were not worth having a major say in the new Iraq.
It was even claimed that the Turkmens were only 10.000 in Erbil, whereas they were at least one third of Erbil (pop.750.000)

U.S. and Iraqi opposition figures used the same double standard. Turkmens were placed in the category of small minorities and treated accordingly in the opposition meetings and decisions. They were never allowed to grow their symbolic and weak militia power to the level of the Peshmergas who were allowed to grow to the level of a professional army.

Although the U.S. gave assurances to Turkey that Kerkuk and Musul were red lines for the Kurds (no entry), the defeat of the bill in the Turkish parliament (allowing the passage of the American forces through Turkey) angered the US and as a result, ignored the Turkish red lines and supported Kurdish demands on Kerkuk and Musul.
Turkmens paid a heavy price for disagreements between US and Turkey and they were completely out of the picture.

The American Era (2003-Present) 6 years

The Turkmens in principle were happy to see the Americans enter Iraq. expecting to see the application of American values of justice, equality and progress in Iraq.

However, the US anger over the Turks blocking US troops passage during the war, lifted the red lines and the Kurds occupied the whole of Northern Iraq including Kerkuk and Musul.
The weak and symbolic Turkmen militia in Erbil was disbanded.
All high governing and administration positions were filled with Kurds brought from the North.

The seventh and so far the largest demographical change happened in Kerkuk and surrounding Turkmen towns. 600.000 Kurds were brought from other areas and settled in the city.
Americans did not interfere with fraud and violations during the elections in Northern Iraq.

Turkmens are still categorized as a small minority and given symbolic posts and positions in the governing councils and parliament.
Although every major group in Iraq has a strong militia power, Turkmens are still not allowed to form their own defense militia power that makes them vulnerable to terrorist and ethnic attacks which happened many times so far in many Turkmen towns.

Today, there is a lot of tension in the North between the Kurds on one side and the Turkmens, Arabs and Assyrians on the other side.

The same Arab refusal to give up Kerkuk to the Kurds has recurred and a new rivalry between Arabs and Kurds is resurfacing, warning of a new ethnic war.

Some progress has been made recently in Kerkuk only, after declaring Turkish as an official language beside Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian. But that is too little to solve the problems of Northern Iraq.

Every Turkmen city had been a target of explosions that killed thousands of Turkmens so far.

The Role of the Western Academia and Media:

Northern Iraq is the home of three major nationalities; the Turkmens, Kurds and Northern Arabs. The Turkmens and the Kurds have the same desire of self rule and autonomy.

However, Kurds’ desires of autonomy and self-rule have been promoted and emphasized to the level of “independence” and establishing the “Greater Kurdistan” by some powers which intend to exploit those desires to achieve their own purposes (i.e. the British to occupy the Musul Province, the Soviet Russians to establish a Communist Kurdish state, Israel to weaken Iraq, Shah’s Iran to get Iraqi border concessions, Islamic Iran to weaken Iraq and finally US-UK to remove Saddam from power and control the Middle East).

Whereas, the same desires of the Turkmens of self-rule and autonomy were suppressed and the whole people was marginalized to a symbolic level because they can’t be exploited to serve anybody’s purpose.
Throughout the twentieth century and even today, the western academia and media was and is utilized extensively in this double standard operation.
Too many universities, NGO’s, Think Tanks, and news agencies throughout the western world received astronomical grants to establish Kurdish institutes (Kurdish Institute at the Sorbonne University- Paris, France, Barzani Institute at the American University, Washington DC, US) to do researches promoting and emphasizing the Kurdish cause, hundreds of conferences, seminars, books, brochures, films and documentaries had been produced.

Whereas, there is not a single research done on the Turkmens by the same academia and media centers and not a single book produced about them.
On the contrary, those academia and media centers, produce maps and data, showing the Kurds as the absolute majority and dominants of the North. Whereas the Turkmens are either omitted from those maps and data or shown as dots and minute entities.

All those misinformation and disinformation is provoking the appetite of the chauvinistic feelings of some Kurdish political groups that will lead to extreme rivalry between the 3 main ethnic groups of Northern Iraq (The Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs). Which will bring disasters upon all peoples of the North and especially upon the Kurdish people.

Greater Kurdistan Fiction (inspired by the Soviets)

Greatest Kurdistan Fiction (inspired by R. Col. Ralph Peters at Stars & Stripes a Pentagon publication Sep.2006)

Examples of How Western Media Minimizes Turkmen Existence:

Imbalance Created by Excessive Rights to One Minority Only:

Since 1958 there is an imbalance between the minorities in Iraq because one minority only (the Kurds) were given excessive rights (partnership with Arabs, autonomy, federalism, a large share from the national treasury, a separate army…etc.) whereas the Turkmens who are the second nationality of the North and the third nationality of Iraq, got only symbolic cultural rights. This inequality lead to disproportionate growth between the two peoples.

The Turkmen language, culture and socio-economic life have eroded to the lowest level in history.

Ethnic pressures from both the Arabs and the Kurds upon the Turkmens resulted in mass Arabization and Kurdification.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish desires have been increased to include all of Northern Iraq into Kurdistan. This endless appetite have lead to violating and confiscating the rights of the Turkmens and other minorities and as well as strong intimidation between the two peoples of the North.

Although the Kurds constitute only 17-18% of the population of Iraq, currently they have more rights than their size.

The President, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Chief of the Military Intelligence, and many important ministries are Kurdish in the Central Government. The army and police force in the North is mostly made up of Peshmergas.
Whereas the Turkmens are 12-13% of the population and have only one symbolic ministry of Youth and Sports. They do not have militias or autonomy.

Since 2003 the Kurds have been trying to include Kerkuk officially into their Kurdistan through a referendum that they are sure of winning.
For that purpose, they settled  600.000 Kurdish emigrants from Iran, Syria and other parts of Northern Iraq in Kerkuk, changing the demographics of the city from 750.000 on April 2003 to 1.35 million nowadays.

The same situation is happening in Tuz, Altun Kopru and other Turkmen towns.

The Solution

The best solution is to bring JUSTICE, EQUALITY and BALANCE between the minorities of Iraq.

The Kurds are given the rights of Federalism, Autonomy, a Separate Army and Police, a Share from the National Treasury and Partnership in the Central Government.

he Turkmens should get the same rights so that Justice, Equality and Balance is established.


The following actions must be taken in order to reach this solution:

1- Withdrawal of the Kurdish Militias (Peshmergas and Asayish) from Turkmeneli – the Turkmen areas of Northern Iraq.

2- Formation of the Turkmen security forces to act in their own zones.

3- Reversal of the Arabization and Kurdification processes which resulted in mass ethnic settlements in Kerkuk, Musul and Diyala provinces.


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  3. hello. I am turkmen of Iran. and tank you for these information.

    • We are interested to hear from the Turkmens of Iran. About their number, their situation, their concerns, etc.

  4. I am Bayat Turkmen from Afghanistan, Selam to all my Turkmen brothers in Iraq

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