The Iraqi Turkmens (also spelled Turcomans, Turkomens, and Turkmans; Turkish: Irak Türkmenleri), also referred to as Iraqi Turks, or Turks of Iraq (Arabic: تركمان العراق‎, Turkish: Irak Türkleri), are Iraqi citizens of Turkic origin who mostly adhere to a Turkish heritage and identity.[1][2] Most Iraqi Turkmen are the descendants of the Ottoman soldiers, traders and civil servants who were brought into Iraq from Anatolia during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.[11][12][3] Despite the popular reference to the Turks of Iraq as "Turkmen", they are not directly related to the Turkmen people of Turkmenistan and do not identify as such.

Today the Iraqi Turkmen form the third largest ethnic group in Iraq,[13][14][1] after the Arabs and Kurds. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, in 2013, the Iraqi Turkmen population numbered 3 million out of Iraq's 34.7 million inhabitants.[1] The minority mainly reside in northern and central Iraq and share close cultural and linguistic ties with Turkey, particularly the Anatolian region.[15]


The terms "Turkmen", "Turkman", and "Turkoman" have been used in the Middle East for centuries (particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) to define the common genealogical and linguistic ties of the Oghuz Turks in these regions. Consequently, the Iraqi Turkmen (as well as the Syrian Turkmen and Anatolian Turkmen) do not identifity themselves with the Turkmen people of Turkmenistan.[16] Sebastien Peyrouse, who is a Senior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, has summarised the terms thusly:


Suleiman the Magnificent defeated the Safavids on December 31, 1534, gaining Baghdad and, later, southern Iraq. Throughout the Ottoman reign, the Ottomans encouraged Turkish migration along northern Iraq.[11]

The Iraqi Turkmens are the descendants of various waves of Turkic migration to Mesopotamia beginning from the 7th century until the end of Ottoman rule (1919). The first wave of migration dates back to the 7th century, followed by migrations during the Seljuk Empire (1037–1194), the fleeing Oghuz during the Mongol destruction of the Khwarazmian dynasty (see Kara Koyunlu and Ag Qoyunlu), and the largest migration, during the Ottoman Empire (1535-1919). With the conquest of Iraq by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534, followed by Sultan Murad IV's capture of Baghdad in 1638, a large influx of Turks - predominately from Anatolia - settled down in Iraq. Thus, most of today's Iraqi Turkmen are the descendants of the Ottoman soldiers, traders and civil servants who were brought into Iraq during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.[11][12][3][17]

Migration under Arab rule

The presence of Turkic peoples in what is today Iraq first began in the 7th century when approximately 2,000[18]–5,000[19][20] Oghuz Turks were recruited in the Muslim armies of Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad.[18] They arrived in 674 with the Umayyud conquest of Basra.[21] More Turkic troops settled during the 8th century, from Bukhara to Basra and also Baghdad.[21] During the subsequent Abbassid era, thousands more Turkmen warriors were brought into Iraq; however, the number of Turkmen who had settled in Iraq were not significant, as a result, the first wave of Turkmen became assimilated into the local Arab population.[18]

Seljuk migration

The second wave of Turkmen to descend on Iraq were the Turks of the Great Seljuq Empire.[11] Large scale migration of the Turkmen in Iraq occurred in 1055 with the invasion of Sultan Tuğrul Bey, the second ruler of the Seljuk dynasty, who intended to repair the holy road to Mecca. For the next 150 years, the Seljuk Turks placed large Turkmen communities along the most valuable routes of northern Iraq, especially Tel Afar, Arbil, Kirkuk, and Mandali, which is now identified by the modern community as Turkmeneli.[22] Many of these settlers assumed positions of military and administrative responsibilities in the Seljuk Empire.

Ottoman migration

A large influx of Turks continued to settle in Iraq once Murad IV recaptured Baghdad in 1638.[20][12]

The third, and largest, wave of Turkmen migration to Iraq arose during the four centuries of Ottoman rule (1535-1919).[11][23] By the first half of the sixteenth century the Ottomans had begun their expansion into Iraq, waging wars against their arch rival, the Persian Safavids.[24] In 1534, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, Mosul was sufficiently secure within the Ottoman Empire and became the chief province (eyalet) responsible for all other administrative districts in the region.[25] The Ottomans encouraged migration from Anatolia and the settlement of immigrant Turkmen along northern Iraq, religious scholars were also brought in to preach Hanafi (Sunni) Islam.[25] With loyal Turkmen inhabiting the area, the Ottomans were able to maintain a safe route through to the southern provinces of Mesopotamia.[11] Following the conquest, Kirkuk came firmly under Turkish control and was referred to as "Gökyurt",[26] it is this period in history whereby modern Iraqi Turkmen claim association with Anatolia and the Turkish state.[26]

With the conquest of Iraq by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534, followed by Sultan Murad IV's capture of Baghdad in 1638, a large influx of Turks settled down in the region.[20][12] After defeating the Safavids on December 31, 1534, Suleiman entered Baghdad and set about reconstructing the physical infrastructure in the province and ordered the construction of a dam in Karbala and major water projects in and around the city's countryside.[27] Once the new governor was appointed, the town was to be composed of 1,000 foot soldiers and another 1,000 cavalry.[28] However, war broke out after 89 years of peace and the city was besieged and finally conquered by Abbas the Great in 1624. The Persians ruled the city until 1638 when a massive Ottoman force, led by Sultan Murad IV, recaptured the city.[25] In 1639, the Treaty of Zuhab was signed that gave the Ottomans control over Iraq and ended the military conflict between the two empires.[29] Thus, more Turks arrived with the army of Sultan Murad IV in 1638 following the capture of Baghdad whilst others came even later with other notable Ottoman figures.[26][30]

Post-Ottoman era

The Misak-ı Millî ("national oath") sought to include the Mosul Vilayet in the proposals for the new borders of a Turkish nation in 1920.

Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Iraqi Turkmen wanted Turkey to annex the Mosul Vilayet and for them to become part of an expanded state;[31] this is because, under the Ottoman monarchy, the Iraqi Turkmen enjoyed a relatively trouble-free existence as the administrative and business classes.[31] However, due to the demise of the Ottoman monarchy, the Iraqi Turkmen participated in elections for the Constituent Assembly; the purpose of these elections was to formalise the 1922 treaty with Britain and obtain support for the drafting of a constitution and the passing of the 1923 Electoral law.[32] The Iraqi Turkmen made their participation in the electoral process conditional that the preservation of the Turkish character in Kirkuk's administration and the recognition of Turkish as the liwa's official language.[32] Although they were recognized as a constitutive entity of Iraq, alongside the Arabs and Kurds, in the constitution of 1925, the Iraqi Turkmen were later denied this status.[31]

Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Iraqi Turkmens have found themselves increasingly discriminated against from the policies of successive regimes, such as the Kirkuk Massacre of 1923, 1947, 1959 and in 1979 when the Ba'th Party discriminated against the community.[31] Although they were recognized as a constitutive entity of Iraq (alongside the Arabs and Kurds) in the constitution of 1925, the Iraqi Turkmen were later denied this status.[31]


A welcome sign in the Turkmen-majority city of Tal Afar written in the Arabic, Turkish and English languages.
An Iraqi Turkmen girl

The Iraqi Turkmen are Muslim or Christian, and have close cultural and linguistic ties with the Anatolian region of Turkey.[15]


The Iraqi Turkmen speak their own dialect of Turkish[33] and have particularly close linguistic ties with the Anatolian region of Turkey.[15] Under Article 4 of the Iraqi Constitution, the Iraqi Turkmen dialect is an official language in "the administrative units in which they constitute density of population". Article 4 (1) terms the language as "Turkmen" whilst Article 4 (4) terms it as "Turkoman".[34] Currently, Anatolian Turkish is used as the formal written language (see the Turkish alphabet); in 1997, the Iraqi Turkoman Congress adopted a Declaration of Principles, Article Three of which states the following:

Due to the existence of different Turkish migration waves to Iraq for over 1,200 years, the Iraqi Turkmen dialect is by no means homogeneous.[37] Moreover, it has been influenced by several prestige languages in the region, Ottoman Turkish from 1534 onwards, and then Persian after the Capture of Baghdad (1624). Once the Ottomans took back Iraq in 1640, the Turkish varieties of Iraq continued to be influenced by Ottoman Turkish, as well as other languages in the region, such as Arabic and Kurdish.[37]

According to some linguists, the dialect spoken by Iraqi Turkmen is similar to the South Azeri dialect used by the Turkish Yörük tribes in the Balkans and Anatolia,[38][39] or intermediate between that and Istanbul Turkish (i.e. standard Turkish).[37] The dialect is particularly close to the Turkish dialects of Diyarbakır and Urfa in south-eastern Turkey.[40] Istanbul Turkish has long been the prestige dialect among Iraqi Turkmen and has exerted a profound historical influence on their dialect. Thus, the Iraqi Turkmen grammar differs sharply from Irano-Turkic varieties, such as South Azeri and Afshar types.[40]

Under the 1925 Iraqi Constitution, the use of Istanbul Turkish in schools, government offices and the media was allowed. Modern Turkish influence remained strong until the Arabic language became the new official language in the 1930s, and a degree of Turkmen–Turkish diglossia is still observable.[40] Restrictions on the Turkish language began in 1972 and intensified under Saddam Hussein's regime.[8][41]

Turkish speakers in Iraq are often bilingual or trilingual; Arabic is acquired through the mass media and through education at school whilst Kurdish is acquired in their neighbourhoods and through marriage.[37]

Education in Turkish

In 2005 Iraqi Turkmen community leaders decided that the Turkish language would replace the use of traditional Turkmeni in Iraqi schools;[42] Turkmeni had used the Arabic script whereas Turkish uses the Latin script (see Turkish alphabet).[42] Kelsey Shanks has argued that "the move to Turkish can be seen as a means to strengthen the collective "we" identity by continuing to distinguish it from the other ethnic groups... The use of Turkish was presented as a natural progression from the Turkmen; any suggestion that the oral languages were different was immediately rejected."[43]

Parental literacy rates in Turkish are low, as most are more familiar with the Arabic script (due to the Ba'athist regime). Therefore, the Turkmen Directorate of Education in Kirkuk has started Turkish language lessons for the wider society. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education Turkmen officer in Ninewa has requested to the "United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq" for the instigation of Turkish language classes for parents.[44]

Media in Turkish

The current prevalence of satellite television and media exposure from Turkey may have led to the standardisation of Turkmeni towards Turkish, and the preferable language for adolescents associating with the Turkish culture.[45]

In 2004 the Türkmeneli TV channel was launched in Kirkuk, Iraq. It broadcasts programmes in the Turkish and Arabic languages.[46] As of 2012, Türkmeneli TV has studios in Kirkuk and Baghdad in Iraq, and in the Çankaya neighbourhood in Ankara, Turkey.[46] Türkmeneli TV has signed agreements with several Turkish channels, such as TRT, TGRT and ATV, as well as with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus's main broadcaster BRT, to share programmes and documentaries.[46]


The religion of Iraqi Turkmen include Islam, divided into the Sunni (about 60%) and Shia (about 40%) sectors and also Christianity. [47][48]



Official statistics

The Iraqi Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq.[49][50] According to 2013 data from the Iraqi Ministry of Planning the Iraqi Turkmen have a population of about 3 million out of the total population of about 34.7 million (approximately 9% of the country's population).[2]

Past Censuses and Controversies

The 1957 Iraqi census (which is recognized as the last reliable census, as later censuses were reflections of the Arabization policies of the Ba'ath regime[51]) recorded 567,000 Turks out of a total population of 6.3 million, forming 9% of the total Iraqi population.[4][6][7][52] This put them third, behind Arabs and Kurds.[53] However, due to the undemocratic environment, their number has always been underestimated and has long been a point of controversy. For example, in the 1957 census, the Iraqi government first claimed that there was 136,800 Turks in Iraq. However, the revised figure of 567,000 was issued after the 1958 revolution when the Iraqi government admitted that the Iraqi Turkmen population was actually more than 400% from the previous year's total.[54] Scott Taylor has described the political nature of the results thusly:

Subsequent censuses, in 1967, 1977, 1987 and 1997, are all considered highly unreliable, due to suspicions of regime manipulation.[55] The 1997 census states that there was 600,000[3][56] Iraqi Turkmen out of a total population of 22,017,983,[57] forming 2.72% of the total Iraqi population; however, this census only allowed its citizens to indicate belonging to one of two ethnicities, Arab or Kurd, this meant that many Iraqi Turkmen identified themselves as Arabs (the Kurds not being a desirable ethnic group in Saddam Hussein's Iraq), thereby skewing the true number of Iraqi Turkmen.[55]

Other estimates

In 2004 Scott Taylor suggested that the Iraqi Turkmen population accounted for 2,080,000 of Iraq's 25 million inhabitants (forming 8.32% of the population)[5] whilst Patrick Clawson has stated that the Iraqi Turkmen make up about 9% of the total population.[50] Furthermore, international organizations such as the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization has stated that the Iraqi Turkmen community is 3 million or 9-13% of the Iraqi population.[58][59] Iraqi Turkmen claim that their total population is over 3 million.[60][61][62] On the other hand, some Kurdish groups claim that the Iraqi Turkmen make up 2–3% of the Iraqi population, or approximately 500,000–800,000;[63]

Areas of settlement

The Iraqi Turkmen primarily inhabit northern Iraq, particularly in a region they refer to as "Turkmeneli" - which stretches from the northwest to the east at the middle of Iraq. They consider their capital city to be Kirkuk.[49] Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield describe the region as follows:

Hence, the Iraqi Turkmen community stretches from Talafar in the northwest to Badra and al-Aziziyya (sv) in the al-Kut province in mid-eastern Iraq.[59] Their strongest presence is in northern Iraq, near Kirkuk, Mosul and Arbil.[8] The 1957 census determined that those who declared their mother tongue as "Turkish" made up close to 40% of the population in the City of Kirkuk,[60][65] which made up the majority of the population. Hence, Kirkuk is regarded as the heart of the Iraqi Turkmen community.[60] The second-largest Iraqi Turkmen city is Tel Afar where they make up 95% of the inhabitants.[66] According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, at least 180,000 Iraqi Turkmen currently live in the city of Kirkuk; there is also at least 250,000 living in Arbil, 300,000 in Baghdad, 500,000 living in Mosul, and 227,000 in the Talafar district. The community also constitute a considerable part of the population of Badra in al-Kut province.[59] However, the once mainly Turkoman cities of the Diyala Province and Kifri have been heavily Kurdified and Arabified.[59]

Many Turkmen in cities captured by ISIS in 2014 moved to Central Iraq especially Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad.[67]

An Iraqi Turkmen protest in Amsterdam, the Netherlands


Most Iraqi Turkmen migrate to Turkey followed by Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.[68] Smaller communities have been formed in Canada, the United States, Australia,[68] Greece,[69] and the United Kingdom.[70]

Social issues

The position of the Iraqi Turkmen has changed from being administrative and business classes of the Ottoman Empire to an increasingly discriminated against minority.[31] Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Iraqi Turkmen have been victims of several massacres, such as the Kirkuk Massacre of 1959. Furthermore, under the Ba'th party, discrimination against the Iraqi Turkmen increased, with several leaders being executed in 1979[31] as well as the Iraqi Turkmen community being victims of Arabization policies by the state, and Kurdification by Kurds seeking to push them forcibly out of their homeland.[71] Thus, they have suffered from various degrees of suppression and assimilation that ranged from political persecution and exile to terror and ethnic cleansing. Despite being recognized in the 1925 constitution as a constitutive entity, the Iraqi Turkmen were later denied this status; hence, cultural rights were gradually taken away and activists were sent to exile.[31]


Massacre of 4 May 1924

In 1924, the Iraqi Turkmen were seen as a disloyal remnant of the Ottoman Empire, with a neutral tie to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's new Turkish nationalist ideology emerging in the Republic of Turkey.[72] Therefore, the Iraqi Turkmen living in the region of Kirkuk posed a threat to the stability of Iraq, particularly as they did not support the ascendancy of King Faisal I to the throne.[72] The Iraqi Turkmen were targeted by the British in collaboration with other Iraqi elements, of these, the most willing to subjugate the Iraqi Turkmen were the Iraq Levies—troops recruited from the Assyrian community that had sought refuge in Iraq from the Hakkari region of Turkey.[72] The spark for the conflict had been a dispute between a Levi soldier and an Iraqi Turkmen shopkeeper, which was enough for the British to allow the Levies to attack the Iraqi Turkmen, resulting in the massacre of some 200 people.[72]

Kirkuk massacre of 1959

The Kirkuk massacre of 1959 came about due to the Iraqi government allowing the Iraqi Communist Party, which in Kirkuk was largely Kurdish, to target the Iraqi Turkmen.[31][73] With the appointment of Maarouf Barzinji, a Kurd, as the mayor of Kirkuk in July 1959, tensions rose following the 14 July revolution celebrations, with animosity in the city polarizing rapidly between the Kurds and Iraqi Turkmen. On 14 July 1959, fights broke out between the Iraqi Turkmen and Kurds, leaving some 20 Iraqi Turkmen dead.[74] Furthermore, on 15 July 1959, Kurdish soldiers of the Fourth Brigade of the Iraqi army mortared Iraqi Turkmen residential areas, destroying 120 houses.[74][75] Order was restored on 17 July by military units from Baghdad. The Iraqi government referred to the incident as a "massacre"[76] and stated that between 31 and 79 Iraqi Turkmen were killed and some 130 injured.[74]


Turks protesting in Amsterdam, the banner reads: 'Kirkuk is an Iraqi city with Turkmen characteristics'.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein's government adopted a policy of assimilation of its minorities. Due to government relocation programs, thousands of Iraqi Turkmen were relocated from their traditional homelands in northern Iraq and replaced by Arabs, in an effort to Arabize the region.[77] Furthermore, Iraqi Turkmen villages and towns were destroyed to make way for Arab migrants, who were promised free land and financial incentives. For example, the Ba'th regime recognised that the city of Kirkuk was historically an Iraqi Arab city and remained firmly in its cultural orientation.[73] Thus, the first wave of Arabization saw Arab families move from the centre and south of Iraq into Kirkuk to work in the expanding oil industry. Although the Iraqi Turkmen were not actively forced out, new Arab quarters were established in the city and the overall demographic balance of the city changed as the Arab migrations continued.[73]

Several presidential decrees and directives from state security and intelligence organizations indicate that the Iraqi Turkmen were a particular focus of attention during the assimilation process during the Ba'th regime. For example, the Iraqi Military Intelligence issued directive 1559 on 6 May 1980 ordering the deportation of Iraqi Turkmen officials from Kirkuk, issuing the following instructions: "identify the places where Turkmen officials are working in governmental offices [in order] to deport them to other governorates in order to disperse them and prevent them from concentrating in this governorate [Kirkuk]".[78] In addition, on 30 October 1981, the Revolution's Command Council issued decree 1391, which authorized the deportation of Iraqi Turkmen from Kiruk with paragraph 13 noting that "this directive is specially aimed at Turkmen and Kurdish officials and workers who are living in Kirkuk".[78]

As primary victims of these Arabization policies, the Iraqi Turkmen suffered from land expropriation and job discrimination, and therefore would register themselves as "Arabs" in order to avoid discrimination.[79] Thus, ethnic cleansing was an element of the Ba'thist policy aimed at reducing the influence of the Iraqi Turkmen in northern Iraq's Kirkuk.[80] Those Iraqi Turkmen who remained in cities such as Kirkuk were subject to continued assimilation policies;[80] school names, neighbourhoods, villages, streets, markets and even mosques with names of Turkic origin were changed to names that emanated from the Ba'th Party or from Arab heroes.[80] Moreover, many Iraqi Turkmen villages and neighbourhoods in Kirkuk were simply demolished, particularly in the 1990s.[80]

Turkmen–Kurd tension

The Kurds claimed de facto sovereignty over land that Iraqi Turkmen regards as theirs. For the Iraqi Turkmen, their identity is deeply inculcated as the rightful inheritors of the region as a legacy of the Ottoman Empire.[81] Thus, it is claimed that the Kurdistan Region and Iraqi government has constituted a threat to the survival of the Iraqi Turkmen through strategies aimed at eradicating or assimilating them.[81] The largest concentration of Iraqi Turkmen tended to be in Tal Afar

According to Anderson and Stansfield, in the 1990s, tension between the Kurds and Iraqi Turkmen inflamed as the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were institutionalized as the political hegemons of the region and, from the perspective of the Iraqi Turkmen, sought to marginalize them from the positions of authority and to subsume their culture with an all-pervading Kurdistani identity. With the support of Ankara, a new political front of Turkmen parties, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), was formed on 24 April 1995.[82] The relationship between the Iraqi Turkmen Front and the KDP was tense and deteriorated as the decade went on. Iraqi Turkmen associated with the Iraqi Turkmen Front complained about harassment by Kurdish security forces.[82] In March 2000, the Human Rights Watch reported that the KDP's security attacked the offices of the ITF in Erbil, killing two guards, following a lengthy period of disputes between the two parties.[82] In 2002, the KDP created an Iraqi Turkmen political organization, the Turkmen National Association, that supported the further institutionalization of the Kurdistan Region. This was viewed by pro-ITF Iraqi Turkmen as a deliberate attempt to "buy off" Iraqi Turkmen opposition and break their bonds with Ankara.[83] Promoted by the KDP as the "true voice" of the Iraqi Turkmen, the Turkmen National Association has a pro-Kurdistani stance and has effectively weakened the ITF as the sole representative voice of the Iraqi Turkmen.[83] Beginning in 2003, there were riots between Kurds and Turkmen in Kirkuk, a city that Turkmen views as historically theirs.[84]


Between ten and twelve Turkmen individuals were elected to the transitional National Assembly of Iraq in January 2005, including five on the United Iraqi Alliance list, three from the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), and either two or four from the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan.[85][86]

In the December 2005 elections, between five and seven Turkmen candidates were elected to the Council of Representatives. This included one candidate from the ITF (its leader Saadeddin Arkej), two or four from the United Iraqi Alliance, one from the Iraqi Accord Front and one from the Kurdistani Alliance.[86][87]

Iraqi Turkmen have also emerged as a key political force in the controversy over the future status of northern Iraq and the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The government of Turkey has helped fund such political organizations as the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which opposes Iraqi federalism and in particular the proposed annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Regional Government.[88]

Tensions between the two groups over Kirkuk, however, have slowly died out and on January 30, 2006, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, said that the "Kurds are working on a plan to give Iraqi Turkmen autonomy in areas where they are a majority in the new constitution they're drafting for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq."[89] However, it never happened and the policies of Kurdification by KDP and PUK after 2003 (with non-Kurds being pressed to move) have prompted serious inter-ethnic problems.[90]

Notable people

See also


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