BAGHDAD — In an interview with Al-Monitor, the Turkmen politician Torhan al-Mufti argued for the establishment of new provinces as the best solution for diminishing ethnic conflict in Iraq, particularly in those areas where diverse ethnic and religious communities reside, such as Ninevah, Basra and Kirkuk. Such a proposal, Mufti contends, should be viewed in light of the possibly imminent liberation of Ninevah province from the Islamic State (IS) by joint Arab and Kurdish forces in coordination with the United States.
Speaking at his home in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Mufti noted that Turkmen political awareness has evolved toward more effective participation in the political process, despite the influence of Turkey on them. The Turkmen have reaped benefits from political alliances entered into since the April 2014 parliamentary elections, particularly alliances with Shiite political movements, including the Islamic Dawa Party, the National Reform Trend (Islah), the Badr Organization and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
Mufti, chairman of the Turkmen Hak Party, served on the Kirkuk provincial council from 2005 to 2010. He was appointed state minister for provincial affairs in 2010 and ran the Ministry of Communications as acting minister under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He then served as provincial affairs adviser to President Fouad Masum until 2014. In September, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appointed Mufti to head the High Commission for Coordination between Provinces Secretariat.
Al-Monitor: Which political current most represents the Turkmens?
Mufti: Prior to 2003, the Turkmens had formed a political umbrella, namely, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which consisted of several Turkmen political parties, including the Movement of Independent Turkmens and the Iraqi National Turkmen Party. This is in addition to other Turkmen parties, such as the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkmens as well as others. Now, the front has turned into a party and no longer serves as an umbrella. A leader is elected every three years, and the most prominent figures of the front are Sanan Ahmed Agha and its founder, Torhan Kattaneh.
As for the active Turkmen parties that are officially registered, they are namely the Turkmen Hak Party, headed by myself; the Turkmen Front, which turned into a party led by Arshad Salhi; the Turkmen Justice Party, led by Anwar Birqdar; the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkmens, led by Abbas al-Bayati; and the Turkmen Wafa Movement, led by Faryad Tozlo. There are also a number of Turkmen associations, gatherings and movements, such as the Turkmen Nationalist Movement, the Nationalist Gathering and the Turkmen Decision Party.
Al-Monitor: What are the Turkmens' main political demands? Do the Turkmen political movements have different demands or are there some that are agreed up by all the movements?
Mufti: The Turkmen demands can be summarized as follows: turning the Turkmen areas into provinces, a law regulating Turkmen affairs, a special budget for the Turkmen areas, restoring the Turkmen territories that were taken by Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council decisions and the Northern Affairs Committee’s laws during the Baathist era. We have failed to restore most of these territories, because of the overlapping laws implemented by Baathist rule to confiscate these lands. Although many political parties and currents represent the Turkmens, they have agreed on these demands and on Turkmen goals in general.
Al-Monitor: Turkmen leaders have complained about the challenges to their participation in the political process, whether in the parliament or Cabinet. Is this due to internal reasons related to the Turkmen parties’ structures or to the regional influences of countries such as Turkey?
Mufti: I believe that the two reasons overlap. For me, it is because the Turkmen political elites have always acted based on oppositionist logic. I believe that this mentality was a key obstacle to the activation of our political participation. They represented opposition to the totalitarian Baathist regime, and after it was ousted, they turned into an opposition to the opposition. For instance, during the Salahuddin conference held before the regime change in 2003 — which was the most important milestone for the Iraqi opposition as it led to an agreement on the formation of a temporary Iraqi government following Saddam Hussein’s fall — the Turkmens were against Iraq turning into a federal state. This is mainly because regional interests dominate the Turkmen political will. These interests were not in line with turning Iraq into a federal system back then. They opposed the federal system at the same conference for the same reasons. As a result, the Turkmens remained outside the political equation and lost the rights they would have probably had since the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003.
Al-Monitor: To what extent did the Turkmen political alliances with the Kurd, Sunni and Shiite lists influence Turkmen demands and political representation?
Mufti: The Turkmen parties established coalitions with large political alliances, with Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites, and they were influential. Yet, I don't believe that has had a negative impact. Most of the Turkmen representatives — regardless of their different political affiliations and partisan alliances — agree on strategic and key issues. This is why they have worked in a way that their political alliances can serve these demands.
The alliance with the Shiite political movements, in particular, was fair and beneficial for the Turkmens to a large extent. My experience serves as an example. Before serving as minister, I was tasked with drafting a strategy for the Turkmens in early 2010, prior to the 2010 elections, and it was the first of its kind. The strategy included the Turkmens' political demands in a way that went beyond the opposition logic that caused the Turkmens to fail to fulfill their goals. I insisted that this policy be altered. After 80 years of playing an opposition role, it was time to try working with the government, regardless of the quality of the government. The achievements accomplished have been proof that we actually needed to change our old policy, and this is what happened.
When I was minister, I worked in a positive way with the government in Baghdad and this led to promoting Turkmen demands, some of which were not achieved. Politicians spoke of them in their meetings, but they were never fulfilled. These include turning Tal Afar and al-Douz into a province, the establishment of a general directorate for Turkmen studies, a [satellite TV channel] for Turkmens, the adoption of a law [acknowledging] Turkmen rights, and the restoration of some, but not all, of the Turkmen territories. Although these projects were backed by the government, they were stalled in parliament because a strong voting bloc in favor of the projects was needed. The Turkmens' political participation was on its way to being effective, although the degree in parliament was different from that in the government.
Al-Monitor: As minister of state for provincial affairs and former adviser to the president, how do you think powers should be distributed between the federal government in Baghdad and the provinces in a bid to alleviate the conflict between these parties?
Mufti: I am all for the creation of new provinces. Since the founding of the Iraqi state, there have been efforts to create new provinces. In the 1920s, new provinces were established. In the 1940s, [other] provinces were established pursuant to the first law of local administration, which allowed for the formation of a new administrative entity based on the interior minister’s suggestion, approved by the Cabinet and combined with a royal pronouncement. Subsequently, Law 159 of 1969 — which approved the development of provinces in accordance with a presidential decree, after the approval of the Cabinet and ratification by the Revolutionary Command Council — led to the formation of Dahuk, Salahuddin, Najaf and [Mutahanna] provinces. After enactment of Law 21 of 2008 on governorates not incorporated into a region, Law 159 of 1969 was revoked [as the issuance of a new law, cancels the old law].
Thus, whenever the need for new provinces arises, Iraq plunges into an administrative vacuum given that the creation of new provinces is a purely administrative task. When the population increases, the state is forced to establish new provinces. Take the example of Jordan, which turned into a group of provinces devoid of any districts or areas. The same happened in Egypt, which witnessed the creation of about 14 provinces, as well as Turkey and other countries. I worked on this idea in my capacity as minister of state for provincial affairs, during 2011-2012, and suggested as a solution for the Cabinet to look into the possibility of districts that can be turned into provinces in a bid to help ease the ethnic tension in pluralistic Iraq — knowing that it is a country where big provinces, such as Ninevah, are heavily populated. For its part, Anbar accounts for a third of Iraq’s area. Another example is the big province of Dhi Qar. Therefore, I suggested the creation of small provinces.
Al-Monitor: What is the difference between the challenges faced by Turkmen parties in the Kurdistan region and those emerging in the rest of Iraq?
Mufti: I think the biggest common challenge facing the Turkmen parties is autonomy. Turkmen parties in Kurdistan receive financial support based on the Kurdish parties financing Law 5 of 2014 — whose first article stipulates the allocation of a yearly budget to finance the parties in the Kurdistan region — and their political actions serve the Kurdish political movements’ aspirations, namely, regarding Kirkuk’s future. Regarding the Turkmen parties working outside Kurdistan, i.e., with the federal government or independently, they receive financial support from regional powers located in the vicinity of Iraq, such as Turkey and Iran, and end up falling under the influence of these countries. Also, there are Turkmen political movements that rely on their own potential and have a noticeable presence both in the Turkmen regions and Baghdad. There are also Turkmen parties that have Sunni or Shiite tendencies that act to serve Turkmen goals, knowing that these parties prioritize their religious affiliations over their national ones. These include the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkmen.
Al-Monitor: After IS invaded parts of Iraq in the summer of 2014, several cities with a Turkmen majority fell under the control of IS. How have the Turkmens tried to participate in the fight against IS in Iraq?
Mufti: The political movements’ actions have been limited, as they could not do much in this context. The Turkmen movements have vainly asked to be armed by international powers such as the US. Some of them formed combat regiments to protect themselves in Turkmen zones, such as the Turkmen nationalist Haq Party, which has a defensive regiment tasked with protecting some areas in Kirkuk. There are also those who joined different Shiite fighting groups, such as the Badr Organization’s military wing.
Al-Monitor: Some Turkmen leaders are demanding that areas with Turkmen majority be turned into provinces. Do you support such calls?
Mufti: Of course I do. We succeeded in convincing the Cabinet of the importance of working to issue a decision to turn the Turkmen city of Tal Afar into a province, through a study we submitted to the Cabinet by virtue of my work as minister of state for provincial affairs. [Proposals were also made for] other, non-Turkmen cities, such as Halabja, al-Douz, Fallujah, the Ninevah Plain and Sinjar. Some of these cities made it to the Council of Representatives [for a vote], such as Halabja, which was turned into a province [in 2014], while others failed to [be turned into provinces], because the parliament’s term ended. Then the IS invasion postponed a lot of projects and solutions.
It is important to have smaller geographical areas where administrative controls can be more effective in fighting corruption. This allows the level of services to improve so that when a local government fails to achieve its goal in a small province, the federal government can step in and provide help in a faster and more effective way.
If the federal government dreads delegating broad powers to provinces for fear that this might threaten its own influence and throw political and administrative challenges its way, then small provinces should not be a concern. In this context, provinces with ethnic diversity and sectarian differences seem to be more important, as they represent a challenge to political stability. By establishing new provinces, such differences can turn into creative competition on an economic and service level.
Al-Monitor: How is the establishment of new provinces likely to impact the future of Iraq in the post-IS period?
Mufti: This question can be answered by envisaging the impact of such a step on the security situation before IS’ invasion of the province of Nineveh, for example. The ethnic clashes and related political differences in Ninevah could have been resolved had new provinces been created. Residents of Tal Afar, Sinjar, the Ninevah Plain and Sheikhan were trying as much as possible to avoid resorting to the administrative center, i.e., Mosul, whenever they wanted to complete administrative transactions. The heart of the city was under the influence of extremist movements, such as al-Qaeda, that have spread terrorism and created problems among several components and sects, and minorities were subject to killings and kidnappings. The idea [I suggested] was to turn Sinjar and Tal Afar into provinces. Also, the Council of Ministers suggested turning part of the Ninevah Plain into a province, while the remaining part would remain the original Ninevah province, with Mosul as its center. The Council of Ministers is now convinced of the importance of such a step, and it has supported the proposal to allow the federal government to establish a province, but the proposal failed to pass in the Council of Representatives.
I think the proposal can contribute to bringing about stability in the post-IS period. It could also include other provinces that might witness conflict, such as Salahuddin, whereby al-Douz and its peripheries could be transformed into a province. Also, the Samarra problem can be resolved by turning the city into a province. As for Anbar, it can easily be turned into three provinces, namely, Fallujah, Ramadi and the desert regions. This, in turn, can help meet its security challenges and control it in the future. Representatives of al-Rifai district in Dhi Qar province suggested the idea of creating Sumer province in Dhi Qar. These last two examples [of Anbar and Sumer] show that provinces do not necessarily have to be based on diversity but on geographical or security needs.