Arshad Salih (left) on a visit to Turkey in June. AFP photo.
By Govend Mistefa
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen are calling for arms to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and protect their own lands, said the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF).
Arshad Salihi called for arms for the Turkmen and a chance to fight in the war against ISIS, particularly in the Turkmen areas that fell to the militants when the swept across northern Iraq in June and captured a third of the country.
“Our first priority is to confront the ISIS militants, who have a number of Turkmen areas in their hands,” said Salihi, who leads the ITF coalition.
He added that the jihadists had changed the balance among different ethnic groups in central and northern parts of Iraq, following their capture of disputed territories with multiethnic and multi-religious populations.
Salihi said his faction, which has at times been at odds with Kurdish groups in Kirkuk over territorial claims, has officially asked Baghdad for military assistance to take on the Sunni extremists in Turkmen areas.
He added that the Iraqi government has a “positive” attitude towards arming the Turkmen Front, but feared Kurdish factions would oppose such a deal.
“I urge our Kurdish brethren not to block the arming of the Turkmen. Kurds should be assured that our guns will not be used against them,” Salihi said in a live interview from Kirkuk with Rudaw TV.
On a visit to Kirkuk on Tuesday, Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jobouri called for the arming of Arab and Turkmen tribes in the province against ISIS.
"We demand the arming of Arab and Turkmen tribes to face ISIS in the province,” he said in a press conference with Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim.
Kurds have long been suspicious of increased Turkmen influence in the oil rich heartland of Kirkuk, which Iraq’s Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs claim as theirs.
After the 2003 Iraq invasion and fall of the old regime, the Asayish Kurdish security forces entered the city and have largely been in charge of its security since.
But the city itself is regarded as part of the “disputed territories” by the Iraqi constitution. It says the fate of these vast lands must be decided by referendum, in which the populations vote for the administration they prefer: the Iraqi government or the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“We want to solve problems. If you claim that Kirkuk is solely a Kurdistani city, then we have the right to say that Kirkuk is a Turkmen city. But we think Kirkuk is an Iraqi city,” Salihi said, as he criticized local Kurdish lawmakers for calling Kirkuk “a Kurdistani city.”
Kurds have historically seen Kirkuk as part of their homeland where they have lived with different ethnic groups, including the Turkmen and Arabs.
But the forceful displacement policies of the last decades by successive Iraqi governments, Kurdish officials say, has changed the population balance of the city, where tens of thousands of Kurdish families were relocated to other areas, while Arab families were settled in Kirkuk.
“With all due respect, Kirkuk is a Turkmen city according to our history and our understanding of the matter,” said Salihi, warning that the ITF would not “compromise on this principle.”
“This is not just my opinion; it’s the opinion of any Turkmen, although it is true that we have Kurdish and Arab brethren in Kirkuk and we will not deny their existence,” he added.