Minorities in Iraq Follow Kurds in Pushing for More Autonomy The Push Risks Further Splintering a Country Whose

1By Ben Kesling in Erbil, Iraq, and Emre Peker in Istanbul
Iraqi Turkmens stage a protest to condemn the recent killings of Turkmen community members in Iraq by militants from an al Qaeda-inspired group, in Ankara, Turkey, on June 18. Associated Press
Threats by Iraq’s Kurds to break off and form an independent state are sparking calls by other ethnic minorities for more autonomy of their own amid the shifting political landscape.
Minorities within the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in the north, most notably Iraqi Turkmen and Assyrian Christians, have in recent weeks begun pressing for international support to get more rights and self-rule from Shiite Arab-led Iraq.
The development risks further splintering a country whose borders are being tested not only by the Kurds, but also by a Sunni-Arab insurgency that has carved out large sections of the country. It also highlights both Baghdad’s failure to heal deepening sectarian and ethnic rifts, and the challenges that Kurdish leaders face in integrating other ethnicities into their semiautonomous region.
“We believe having three regions in Iraq is not enough,” said Reyath Sorykahia, who heads a Turkmen political party in Kurdistan. “We want the establishment of a Turkmen area in Tal Afar, and Kirkuk as an independent region,” he added, referring to two towns with large Turkmen populations.
Kurds, as the second-largest ethnic group in Iraq after Arabs, have built an identity as an underdog, incessantly pushing for greater autonomy from Baghdad. But in the past month, they have capitalized on Iraq’s instability to strengthen their territorial control, seizing Kirkuk amid an advance on it by insurgents. The Kurds also plan to stage a referendum on independence and lobbied the U.S. for support.
Kurdish independence is far from a reality and Iraq must separately determine how to deal with Kirkuk, a multiethnic city pushing to become a semiautonomous region of its own, and other territory the Kurds have taken over.
Baghdad, as well as the U.S., have consistently opposed Kurdish independence, arguing that a united Iraq will be stronger and more prosperous. Neighboring Turkey and Iran also worry that an independent Kurdistan will encourage their own restive Kurdish populations to follow suit.
Even before the insurgency by a group that calls itself Islamic State, Turkmen were pushing to gain new powers in Kurdistan. Under a 2009 law, they are guaranteed five seats in the 111-seat regional Kurdish parliament. Other minorities like Christians and Yazidis, who are ethnically Kurdish, are also guaranteed seats. But the groups still want more of a voice.
“We don’t believe Turkmen have fair participation; it’s just an image,” Mr. Sorykahia said.
The Iraqi Turkmen make up less than 5% of the population, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Concentrated in northern Iraq, where they arrived throughout centuries of Ottoman rule, the Turkmen are Muslims who are ethnically related to the people of Turkey. They have forged an amicable relationship with the Kurds, another embattled ethnic minority.
Turkmen culture was suppressed under the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and they have recently been victims of sectarian violence.
The Turkmen’s plight has reverberated across Turkey, with nationalists holding prayer sessions, relief organizations delivering aid to those fleeing violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and lawmakers voicing support for their ethnic brethren. Protecting their Iraqi kinsmen carries both emotional weight and strategic importance as Ankara seeks to become a regional power.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that his country might assist if the Turkmen are threatened, but hasn’t explicitly supported more autonomy for them. Following the killing of a prominent Turkmen political leader in Kirkuk in June, Mr. Erdogan said, “While our Turkmen brethren are threatened in Syria, in Iraq, we can’t turn our backs and say, ‘Not my problem.’ ”
But with Ankara’s political clout in the Middle East diminished amid severed diplomatic ties with Syria, frayed relations with Iraq, Israel and Egypt and dozens of Turkish diplomatic staff captured by Islamic State in Mosul, it has little recourse.
“The space where Turkey can be active is shrinking, which doesn’t strengthen Ankara’s hand in its priority of protecting Turkmen,” said Fuat Keyman, an international-relations professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul. “Turkey will try to protect Turkmen by bolstering its ties with the Kurds.”
Iraq agrees on the government’s need to protect minorities such as Turkmen and Christians, with Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, saying they would be the first victims of sectarian violence.
But roiled in its fight with Islamic State extremists and battling the Kurds’ push for independence, the Iraqi government hasn’t voiced support for Turkmen autonomy. Communications and Provincial Affairs Minister Torhan al-Mufti, a Turkmen cabinet member, said supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government amid the chaos is the best option for his kinsmen.
“Turkmen were always left outside the political sphere in Iraq…[but] we drafted a lot of laws for the Turkmen under Maliki’s government, so, that’s been the best for us,” Mr. al-Mufti said in an interview, citing budget allocations, autonomy proposals and plans to create a tribal defense force.
Other senior Turkmen leaders also caution about pushing for excessive autonomy now. Muna Nabi, a Turkmen member of the Kurdish parliament, said while she supported Kurdish independence, Turkmen should remain a part of Iraq to prevent the country’s wholesale fracturing.
“If everyone wants their own region in Iraq, then this would lead to many pieces that could lead to foreign intervention,” she said. “Geographic autonomy for Turkmen may not be a good idea.”
Turkmen advocating for more autonomy still want a central-government controlled foreign policy, common currency and national army, with many preferring the leadership of Kurds over Arabs, citing Kurdistan’s stability and prosperity in the past decade. Embracing minorities will also serve as a recognition of diversity, strengthening a new Kurdish state, ethnic groups say.
“If the Kurds become an independent state it will be good for us,” said Romeo Hakari, head of the BWT-Mahrain Democratic Party, an Assyrian Christian ethnic political party. “If they don’t allow [diversity], it will be against the principles of the new state, it will be acting just like Iraq is now.”
Still, for Turkmen, securing a semiautonomous status remains a priority that they argue will serve Iraq’s stability.
“Every ethnic group will be happy with what they have,” Mr. Sorykahia said.

*Source: http://online.wsj.com/articles/minorities-in-iraq-follow-kurds-in-pushing-for-more-autonomy-1405669767