Jonny Dymond in Istanbul
Sunday February 2, 2003
These are the Turks of northern Iraq, known as Turkmen. Many have fled from persecution by Saddam Hussein and every year they gather for mevlit, the mourning ceremony for those who died in either the Iran-Iraq war or in the struggle against Saddam.
Next to the flag is a map of northern Iraq; different colours indicate different ethnic groups. A small strip of light blue at the northernmost edge of Iraq indicates Kurdish predominance. Down south is uncoloured, of no interest to the Turkmen. A broad strip is coloured yellow to indicate Turkmen predominance. Firmly within the yellow area lie Mosul and Kirkuk, one of the richest oil-producing areas in Iraq.
Every room in the apartment has this map on the wall; in his office at the back of the suite the leader of the Iraqi Turks' Association, Kemal Beyatli, has two copies framed and hanging on the walls. Any expression of interest prompts the donation of another copy.
Turkey has always spoken up for the Turkmen community in Iraq, a group most number at about 500,000 in northern Iraq but which Turkey says is three million strong. But in recent months Turkish pulses have been racing at the prospect of a change in control of the areas that the Turkmen say they dominate.
Rumblings about a Turkish claim on northern Iraq started during and after the Gulf war in 1991. Since then Turkey has backtracked, sticking to the line of maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity. But recently Turkish politicians have once again raised the issue of sovereignty.
Alarm bells began to ring loud among Turkey's neighbours when Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis announced last month that Turkey was inspecting old treaties to 'find out whether or not we have lost our rights to this region'.
Mosul and Kirkuk lie just outside the semi-autonomous region of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Turkey claimed Mosul and Kirkuk for itself when it declared its borders after the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1920. Even then the area's oil wealth was evident. But Turkey never secured the territory. It recognised Iraqi control of the area in a treaty signed with Britain in 1926.
In his office decorated with paintings, engravings and, of course, maps of Kirkuk, Kemal Beyatli is careful not to step beyond the official line of Turkish policy. He is not, despite the suffering of the Turkmen people at the hands of Saddam, in favour of war.
But about Kirkuk's origins, he is adamant: 'The traditions of the people, the architecture, the cemeteries and the folklore prove to which nation it belongs,' he says. 'One can see very clearly that Kirkuk is a Turkmen region.'
All of which may come as something of a surprise to the Kurds, seen as the dominant ethnic group in the area. But it is the Kurdish presence in the region, rather than old treaties or ethnic links, that drives Turkey's claims.
It is hard to find people in Turkey who really believe that it has sovereignty over Mosul and Kirkuk. Arguments remain over whether Turkey received what it should have from oil revenues, says Hikmet Ulugbay, a former government Minister who ordered research on the issue when he was in office. But he said, 'the 1926 agreement firmly established the borderline. There's no question about it'.
Turkey's most recent claims to Kirkuk and Mosul are more about sending a warning to the Kurds and their likely allies, the US. Turkey will not allow Mosul and Kirkuk to fall into Kurdish hands. It has fought a long and bloody war against Kurdish paramilitaries in south-east Turkey. It believes that any hint of an autonomous Kurdish state would inflame a separatist problem which it has only recently contained.
'The real problem for Ankara,' said Kurdish journalist Ragip Duran, 'is the thought of an autonomous Kurdish state with access to the oil wealth of Kirkuk and Mosul, which would give it economic independence.'
If there is any hint of the oil wealth of the region falling into Kurdish hands, Turkey will not hesitate to move its army - the largest in Europe - into northern Iraq. Turkey announced this week that it was reinforcing its 2nd Army, based near the Iraqi border.
The United States insists that if it fights Iraq it will not be fighting for oil; it has said that the oil of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq. That may satisfy the great powers. But if Iraq's central authority is destroyed those 'people' may once again become 'peoples', fighting between themselves for the oil wealth that could set them free. Warily, Turkey watches and waits.