The New Face of Terrorism in the Turkmeneli Region

The Türkiye-Iraq Security Summit was held in Baghdad on March 14, 2024. In the summit, important issues such as terrorism, economy, and energy were discussed. One of the most important issues that the final declaration of the summit highlighted is that the terrorist organisation PKK was declared a "banned" organisation in Iraq by the Iraqi Undersecretariat of National Security. Even though Iraq did not openly declare the organisation as a "terrorist organisation" and therefore did not meet Türkiye’s expectations, this new situation was welcomed positively. Having been suppressed in rural areas in the north of Iraq after the "Pençe Series Operations" launched by Türkiye within the scope of the fight against terrorism, the PKK is trying to establish its presence in the regions towards the south of Iraq. The PKK targets different structures that appear to be allied with Türkiye in these regions. In this context, Turkmens as a community are targets of the PKK. In addition, prominent Turkmen figures, Turkmen institutions, and organisations were also attacked. It has also been observed that the organisation has recently targeted the economy of Turkmens. The fires that occurred repeatedly in the historical markets in Erbil and Kirkuk are particularly striking.

Erbil Kayseri Bazaar Fire
The Kayseri Bazaar of Erbil, which has a history of approximately 200 years, was first built between 1190 and 1232 during the reign of Sultan Muzaffer Gökbörü, one of the famous Turkish commanders of Saladin al-Ayyubi, and secondly in the 1850s during the reign of Hacı Muhammed. With about 600 jobs, the bazaar—referred to as "Bazar" by Erbil residents—is one of the most significant locations in the city and has become essential to the city's economy. On the night of May 5, 2024, a massive fire started for unclear reasons in the historic Erbil Kayseri Bazaar. Since the fire began at night, it was noticed late, so intervention was delayed. This caused heavy damage to the bazaar. Nearly 400 workplaces and warehouses in the bazaar were completely burned and became unusable. Despite the shock effect that the fire's damage generated in Erbil, the Turkmen community was disproportionately affected because they owned almost 70% of the burned-out workplaces in the area. The fire in Erbil has also been on the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government's (IKRG) agenda regarding its security dimension. Other IKRG officials, especially Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, also made statements about the incident. The most striking statement came from Aydın Maruf, IKRG Regional Minister for ethnic and religious component affairs and Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Political Bureau Member. Maruf pointed out that the terrorist organisation PKK is the perpetrator of the fires that broke out in historical markets in Kirkuk and Erbil.

Considering the timing of the fire that broke out in Erbil Kayseri Bazaar, it is quite significant that it took place right after the President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visited the city of Erbil as part of his visit to Iraq on April 22, 2024. The Erbil government is in favour of strengthening and maintaining ties between the KRG and Türkiye. Because of this, the Erbil Governorship had reflected the Turkish flag on the ancient Erbil Castle prior to Erdoğan's visit to Erbil. This event had an impact on Erdoğan's visit to Erbil and demonstrated the improvement in ties between Türkiye and the KRG. The people who are in favour of bilateral relations in the area applauded the projection of the Turkish flag onto Erbil Castle. Of course, one could argue that the PKK, a terrorist group active in the area, was perturbed by this positive development.

Kirdar and Avcı Inn Fire
Built in 1855 during the Ottoman Empire era, Kirkuk's "Kayseri Bazaar" serves as the common trading hub for the various ethnic groups residing in the city. Apart from being an ordinary shopping mall, Kayseri Bazaar is also one of the most valuable assets of Kirkuk in terms of history, social, political, and economic aspects. A major fire broke out in the bazaar in November 2018. More than 400 workplaces—both inside and outside the bazaar—were damaged by the fire, with the majority of them suffering significant damage. According to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's instructions, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) repaired the bazaar during the specified period.

Mustafa Kırdar, a prominent Turkmen leader, constructed the Kırdar Inn in 1883. One of the major trading hubs for Turkmen merchants is Kırdar Inn. Unidentified individuals set the Kırdar and Avcı inns on fire at night on May 19, 2024. The ITF officials Hasan Turan and Erşat Salihi stated that the fires in Turkmen regions were not ordinary events and drew attention to the sabotage attempts carried out by terrorist organisations.

Based on intelligence, the Iraqi National Security Undersecretariat's Kirkuk Directorate notified the Kirkuk Police Directorate two days prior to the incident on May 17 that "illegal groups were planning to set fire to workplaces on Kirkuk Cumhuriyet Street." Furthermore, it has come to light that the terrorist group did not target the offices on Kirkuk Cumhuriyet Street but rather was diverted and caught off guard by setting fire to the Big Bazaar, or Kirdar Bazaar, on the other side of Kirkuk. It is possible to interpret the fire's May 19 date—Youth and Sports Day, which commemorates Atatürk—as a message to Türkiye that supports Turkmens. Actually, it was stated in the May 6, 2024, letter from Iraqi intelligence to the Kirkuk security forces that the PKK intended to attack the ITC's headquarters and employees in Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. It can be argued that the PKK's threat to Turkmen's lives and property is still present in the Turkmen regions where there have been fires.

Information gathered from security sources indicates that five people were taken into custody following the fires in Kirkuk and Erbil, although this was not formally announced. It was discovered that four of the people detained belonged to the Sulaymaniyah Public Order's anti-terrorism unit, and one was a terrorist with the PKK. It is known that during their investigation, the arrested individuals also admitted to being responsible for the incident against Hüseyin Alloş, who lost his life on March 31, 2024, as a result of the assassination of the Bayat Tribe's leader in the Turkmen district of Kifri. Terrorist groups took advantage of the governance gap in Kirkuk, where Turkmens live densely, and negatively affected the security of the city.

Even though Kirkuk held provincial council elections almost six months ago, political squabbles prevented the formation of a government. The newly started fires could have a detrimental impact on Kirkuk's security and cloud the future of the local government's formation. It is possible that the planned targeting of Turkmen businesses indicates that the Turkmen economy and presence in the region have suffered. In order to make up for their financial losses, it is crucial that the Turkmen traders who were affected by the fires receive compensation from the Iraqi Central Government. There are plans to conduct a nationwide census in Iraq by the end of 2024. One could also argue that these assaults on Turkmens are an attempt to persuade them to leave Iraq. It was discovered following the fires that workplaces lacked insurance. The Iraqi government may decide to provide insurance and security for these kinds of significant workplaces.

Türkiye is also concerned about the burned-out workplaces in Erbil and Kirkuk because they are examples of Ottoman artefacts and tangible cultural heritage. Consequently, Türkiye could potentially cooperate with the Iraqi government to safeguard the aforementioned locations. The largest district in Iraq, Turkmen Tal Afar district, is sometimes referred to as the country's grain warehouse. There is a chance that comparable incidents will take place in other Turkmen areas if the relevant Iraqi state units are unable to stop the terrorist attacks against the Turkmen people. For this reason, it is of great importance that they show social reaction and make their voices heard to the Iraqi Central Government in order to protect the regions where Turkmens live densely and put an end to the attacks against Turkmens.