US war planners have decided that their most useful strategic asset for the coming offensive against Saddam Hussein is the Turkomans of north and central Iraq – even more than the Kurds.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources explain their reasoning:
1. The Turkomans control a vital strip separating Baghdad and central Iraq from its oil regions in the north. After the war is over, Turkoman and Kurdish autonomous states in the north and a Shiite territory in the south will keep the federal regime in Baghdad chronically weak and ineffective. This post-war maneuver programmed into the war planning will lead to Iraq’s partitioning – not into three regions as Washington first planned – but four, the Shiite region centering on the holy cities of Karbala and Nejef, the Kurdish region in the northern mountains, the Sunni region centering on Baghdad, and the Turkoman Strip including the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk as well as Arbul.
The oilfields will be left with the Turkomans and the Shiites.
2. At the end of May, Turkey came around to joining the US offensive against Iraq. While the Iraqi Turkomans regard themselves primarily as Iraqi, the Turks regard them as brethren. However, with the prospect of gaining the oilfields, the Turkomans were willing to accept Ankara’s tutelage. America did not therefore object to the Iraqis building a new pumping station on the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline running from Kirkuk to the Turkish terminal of Ceyhan. When it becomes fully operational this summer, the station will almost double the pipeline’s capacity to 1.6 million bpd, a bonanza for the future masters of northern Iraq.
Turkey joined the US alliance against Iraq for compelling strategic reasons of its own. One, the eventual disseverance of Iraq will weakens both Iraq and its military ally, Syria. Two, the nagging Kurdish problem will be subdued once and for all by the presence of Turkish military forces in the autonomous Turkoman region, leaving the Kurds clamped between Turkey in the north and the Turkoman Strip in the south. Three, Ankara will acquire direct access to Baghdad for the first time since the Ottomans were thrown out in 1924.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources Turkey followed up its consent by inserting special military units and military intelligence agents in Turkoman towns, with the sanction of the local Kurdish authorities, who were promised lavish US economic aid for bettering their standard of living. The Turkish presence there is equivalent to the US presence in the Kurdish regions.
Turkish agents have also been planted in the Turkoman community in Baghdad.
Their task is to assist the American effort to undermine and subvert the Saddam regime from within to reduce the need for large-scale military action.
The Turkish officers are training small Turkomen units in the arts of guerrilla warfare for use against the last Iraqi military remnants who may survive in their autonomous strip. The guerrillas and the Turkish and US special units present in the two autonomous regions will be able to cut the supply lines from Baghdad to the Iraqi forces positioned on the Turkish and Syria borders.
The new name to watch for when the US offensive is launched is Sapr Oketene, the Turkoman national leader chosen by the Americans and Turks.
Iraq’s 2.5 million Turkomans are one of the Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath party’s darkest secrets, expunged from the national constitution since 1972, although – or rather because – their ancestral lands are situated in some of the most strategic space in the Middle East.
Added to the routine trampling of rights suffered by Iraq’s diverse minorities, Kurds, Shiites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazdis and Christians, the separate ethno-linguistic Turkoman communities have additionally been subjected to systematic displacement and eviction from their oil-rich territories, a Turkic-speaking strip that runs from the Turkish-Syrian borders in the northwest to the Iranian border southeast of Baghdad and include Kirkuk, the largest city, Mosul, Arbil – or Irbil, Diala, Salah-e-din and Altunkopru. The last is an island-town on the Little Zab River. There is also a large community in Baghdad.
The forcible relocation of the Turkomen communities and their replacement by Arabs began in 1925 when the British first set up the Iraqi oil company in Kirkuk and Mosul. This policy of changing the demography of the oil rich sectors of Kirkuk by deporting ethnic Kurds and Turkomans is still going on, including seizure of their lands.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s Turkomans – who despite their misleading name are closer to the Turks and Azeris than to the Turkmen of Turkmenistan – also complain of a policy of ethnic cleansing by the dominant Kurdish authorities of northern Iraq. The Turkomans, who ruled Iraq from the ninth century until 1924, find themselves backed into a corner between the Kurds and the Saddam government. For centuries the Turkic Strip was a buffer separating the southern Arabs of Iraq from the northern Kurds. The “safe havens” created by the UN in 1991 after the Gulf War divided the Turkomans into two separate communities, part living above the 36th parallel which is dominated by the Kurds and part living below and dominated by the Iraqi regime.
The so-called Washington Agreement of September 1998, which aimed at reconciling the warring Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurds, was partly at the expense of the Turkomans. Under its terms only Turkomans living in Kurdish-controlled areas can take part in parliamentary elections to an autonomous Kurdish parliament, whereas the Turkomans northern community has been severely eroded by dislocation and persecution.
But the Washington agreement did spur them into belated political action. Their political organization is recent – the Turkmen Front was established on April 24, 1995 to unify the many Turkoman political structures and parties. Responding to the Washington agreement, the Turkmeneli Party leader, Riyaz Sarikahya, called for the formation of an autonomous “Turkmeneli Region” between Mosul and Kirkuk that would transect Kurdish lands.
The strategic importance of the Turkoman Strip derives from:
A. Geography: A commercial and cultural crossroads, it borders on Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Baghdad province. Across this strip runs a pipeline from the Caspian Sea basin via Iran and Syria to the Mediterranean.
B. Oil and Gas Resources: According to Joseph P. Riva, oil expert of the US Library of Congress: “The large Arabian-Iranian downwarp sedimentary basin contains by far the richest petroleum province in the world.”
C. Fertility: Situated in the middle part of the Tigris basin, it embraces the mild and highly fertile catchment area of the Great Zab and the Little Zab, with abundant water and rich agriculture.
D. Source of Monotheist Faiths: Sanctuaries of the three great world faiths. Kurdish scholars claim the walls of ancient Arbil are the vestiges of a ziggurat. They are convinced that the entire region was a part of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
Considered the third largest ethnic group of Iraq, the Turkoman settlement started at the foot of the mountains of northern Iraq with two incursions of nomadic tribes from present-day Central
Asia and Azerbaijan in the seventh century. Early eighth century Turkomans were recruited as soldiers and officers for the Abbasid Army and palace guards. This recruitment increased sharply in the ninth century during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mu’tassim, himself born of a Turkish mother. The mid-13th century Mongol invasion brought a fresh wave of Turkish migrants into northern-central Iraq as recruits from Central Asian tribes. These warriors caused great devastation before settling in the area.
In the early 16th century, the Azerbaijan Turks invaded Baghdad, bringing a Turkoman incursion to the Iraqi capital. In effect, Turkomans ruled Iraq from 833 to 1924.
Most are Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, although a small number are Christian, and speak a southern Turkic dialect, which they jealously preserve. Under the 1925 constitution of Iraq, Turkomans retained the right to use their own language in schools and have their own press. In 1972, the Turkish language was banned. The community was not mentioned in the 1973 Interim Constitution and in the new constitution promulgated in 1990, the Iraqi people was said to “consist only of Arabs and Kurds”.