mardi 16 octobre 2007

The Grandeur of Iraq's Turkmens


of Gilles Munier's article (published in AFRIQUE ASIE - October 2007)

HistoryThis people – which is marginalized today in Iraq - has played a fundamental role in Mesopotamia until the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Since the end of the First World War, the number of Turkmens in Iraq – also called Turcomans – i.e. “True Turks” – has been underestimated. They are between 2 and 3 million, spread over a territory which they call Turkmeneli, this territory stretches diagonally from the south of the Kurdish autonomous region at the Syrian border, to the Iranian border. A great number of Turkmens live in Baghdad and Erbil, the latter is a Turkmen city which was handed to the Kurds under the law of autonomy.

The Turkmens originate from the legendary Kingdom of Touran, they very soon converted to Islam. They settled in Mesopotamia - long before the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Turks in 1453 - where they played an essential role until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The first Turkmens who arrived in Iraq in the VIIth century came from Boukhara. They were around 4.000 and had been recruited by Ubeidullah Bin Ziyad, the Umayyad governor of Basra, for their great skills in archery. A second contingent rejoined them to protect Wasit, Iraq’s capital city which was founded in 702 by Al Hajjaj ben Yusuf, one of the most terrible rulers Iraq has ever known.

In the VIIIth century, the Abbasid Caliphs, Mansur, Racheed and Maamun, made them the elite of their army. In 835, 40.000 Turkmens settled in Samarra, the new capital city which was built by Caliph Al-Mu’tasim; after his death they settled south of Kerkuk. The second Turkmen wave arrived in Iraq from 1055 onwards, behind Tugrul Bey, a Seljuk Turkmen prince who liberated Baghdad from the Buyyid domination. Tugrul Bey - maintaining the Caliphate for the sake of appearances - funded a dynasty which ruled Iraq until Caliph Al-Nasr got rid of it in 1225. The Turkmen atabeg of Mosul, Imad ad-Din Zengi, who became governor of Aleppo in 1129, declared war on the Crusaders. After his death, his son Nur-Eddine sent Salah-Eddine Al Ayubi, one of his Kurdish officers, to Egypt. The latter toppled the Fatimid dynasty and liberated Jerusalem on 2nd October 1187. During the XIIth and XIIIth centuries other atabeg Turkmens, in Erbil and Kerkuk, ruled over quasi- independent States.

The capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 put an end to the Caliphate. Ibn Al-Alkami, vizir of the last Caliph, who supported them in the hope of installing a descendant of Imam Ali on the throne, was maintained in his post by Hulagu Khan. For the Iraqis, he is the archetype of the “Shiite traitor”, they compare his role with that of the pro-Iranians with the United States.

White and Black Sheep

The Ilkhanid Mongols occupied Iraq until one of their generals, Burzug Al-Jalairi, took power in 1334. The Jalairids remained in power until 1410. Under their reign, the country was invaded by Timur Leng, a Turkmen prince from Samarqand, who destroyed Tikrit, Mosul and then Baghdad in 1401. He went away leaving behind 100.000 Turkish slaves, allowing the Turkmen White Sheep (Aq-Koyunlu) to settle for good in the north of Iraq. The Black Sheep, hereditary enemies of the former, took over Baghdad in 1410, but they were expelled in 1467 by the White Sheep. The third Turkmen wave arrived under the Ottoman Empire, after the capture of Baghdad by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534 and then under Murad IV who routed the Persians in 1638.

The Iraqi Turkmens are mainly Sunnis, of the Hanafite rite. The Shiites – 30 to 40% of the community – are divided between Twelvers, Alevis, Qizilbaks and Ahl-al-Haqq. The Shabaks, another Turkish minority, are most probably “turkified” Mongols or ancient Qizilbaks from the troops of Ismael Ist, founder of the Persian Safavid dynasty. There are also a few Christian Turkmens who used to live in the ancient Citadel of Kerkuk, near Prophet Daniel’s tomb.
For original in French, please see:

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