A new Turkmen jihadist group calling itself “the Martyr Saighan Battalion” has released a communiqué announcing its creation and intention to join the insurgency in Iraq (iraqipa.net, February 15). The new formation is non-Arab, drawing its members from Iraq’s Turkmen community.
The Turkmen are the third-largest ethnicity in Iraq but insist that their total numbers are vastly underestimated in official statistics for political reasons—the Turkmen themselves estimate their numbers at between 2.5 to 3 million people. The Turkmen reside mainly in the oil-rich Kirkuk region, with smaller communities in Baghdad and the provinces of Mosul, Arbil, Diyala and Salah al-Din. Most Turkmen are descended from Oghuz Turks who were settled in Iraq for centuries as part of the Ottoman administration. Their Turkish dialect has suffered from efforts to suppress it that began in the 1930s and intensified under Saddam Hussein. The community is divided between Sunnis and Shiites, with a small minority of Christians. A number of political parties exist with the aim of preserving Turkmen ethnicity and rights in Iraq. These parties formed in reaction to the policies of Saddam Hussein, who not only refused to acknowledge the existence of Iraqi Turkmen, but dispersed them all over Iraq in an attempt at forced assimilation.
Politically, the Turkmen ethnic group has been a major player in determining the future status of northern Iraq, with the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk becoming a major source of tension between Kurds and Turkmen. Some Turkmen applauded the Turkish military’s recent incursion into northern Iraq as a blow to Kurdish aspirations for statehood in the region (Turkish Daily News, March 7). Militarily, the Turkmen have largely kept out of the insurgency against Coalition forces, but in cities like Tal Afar, Sunni and Shiite Turkmen have engaged in vicious sectarian violence within their own community.
“The Martyr Saighan Battalion” released its first communiqué on February 15, announcing that they are a part of the Iraqi people’s quest to rid Iraq of Coalition forces. The Sunni group confirmed its Islamist inclinations by addressing “insurgents on the path of resistance and jihad in the Islamic world.” The communiqué declares that the Turkmen youth of Kirkuk have decided to form a jihadist group to stop the enemy—the American occupiers—from exploiting Iraqi wealth. The group proclaimed that the Turkmen have, from day one of the invasion of Iraq, taken up arms and carried out resistance operations against the occupier, a claim later refuted by some jihadi forum members. Although there is no evidence for the field insurgency operations described by the Saighan battalion, Turkmen were praised for their role in the Iraqi insurgency by the purported leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, in a speech last year: “I seize this opportunity to praise Iraqi Sunni Turkmen, heroes of Islam. We say to them, God bless you. You reminded us of your forefathers’ jihad that vanquished the Romans” (aljazeeratalk.net, August 31, 2007).
The communiqué does not specify who Saighan is except that he sacrificed his life for the sake of religion, country and the people of Iraq. Saighan, however, is not mentioned by any of the many martyr-lists found on Iraqi Turkmen websites. The conclusion of the communiqué gives a strong indication of the group’s adherence to Salafi-jihadist tendencies: “We hail and join hands with all Iraqi jihadist groups to continue the path of jihad. We say to you that you have brothers in religion and nationality that raised the flag of jihad [and] resistance and kept up an Islamic jihadist front against the enemy. Together we will defeat the infidels like we did a century ago. We will work with you to restore the ummah’s glory and become one nation under one caliphate again.” The communiqué is signed “the Martyr Saighan’s Battalion—proud Kirkuk.”
Very few jihadi forum chatters commended or prayed for the new Turkmen jihadi battalion. Comments varied from the indifferent—“Everyone has the right to defend the land he lives on”—to the sarcastic: “Who is Saighan? Is he a companion of the Prophet? Were you out of the country and came back after five years of occupation? Our jihad doesn’t rely on ethnicity, [but] rather on religion. Salman al-Farsi [a companion of the Prophet Muhammad] bragged about his Muslim religion, not his ethnic origin.”
The formation of a jihadist group by some Turkmen should not be taken as an indication that a significant number of Sunni Turkmen are turning to Salafi-jihadist ideology. Nevertheless, the injustices and discrimination suffered by minority Iraqi Turkmen during the Arabization campaign of Saddam Hussein and the present difficulties in their relations with the Kurdish majority in northern Iraq have offered al-Qaeda an opportunity to solicit Turkmen seeking justice and equal citizenship rights for their ethnic group. The Iraqi government’s continuous negligence with respect to Turkmen claims of unjust treatment can be expected to encourage more Turkmen to ally themselves with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq.