Reclaiming the Mosul Vilayet: Turkey’s economic, cultural and political re-occupation of Kurdistan, Part One

Written by W. Karda (; editorial assistance by KB

Part One

‘The Turks have come to conquer not with tanks but with cranes.’
Wood, Graeme. Temporary Autonomous Zone. The Caravan, 10 December 2010.

Iraq 1914. Click to enlarge.

And conquer they have. Turkey is back in full force after a many decades long absence from what was the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul. On 23 January 1919, the Ottomans handed over to the British forces the last of its territory in that region. In January 2011, 92 years later, you might not recognise that they had ever left.

The Mosul Vilayet was one of the many provinces in the former Ottoman Empire. It was formed in 1879 by breaking away from the Baghdad Vilayet and included the cities of Suleimaniya, Hewlêr (Erbil), Duhok, Kirkuk and parts of Mosul.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, the Vilayet fell under the rule of the victors, namely Great Britain, and became a subject of contest amongst all the other groups; Kurds, who made up the vast majority of the population of the Vilayet wanted independence. Turkey on the other hand, considered the territory theirs and did not recognise the British authority over the area. They also wanted it because Turkish leaders were afraid that Kurdish nationalism would thrive under the British Mandate and cause trouble with the Kurdish population in Turkey. Faisal ibn Husayn, who had become the king of the newly established country of Iraq, wanted the Vilayet to be a part of the country because of its natural resources, mountainous borders (which provided security), and also to balance out the Shi’a population in the south. Ultimately the British incorporated the Vilayet into Iraq, but maintained control over the oil in the region, agreeing to give a portion of the oil profits to the newly established Republic of Turkey to calm their anger over the decision. The Turks begrudgingly recognised Iraqi control over the area in a treaty signed with Britain in 1926.

Turkey, however, never entirely lost its interest in the former Vilayet of Mosul. Every now and then the Turks have reiterated that the areas which were included in the Ottoman-era Mosul Vilayet must be reclaimed, and there are those who believe that the entire Vilayet rightly belongs to Turkey.

Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and the establishment of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the Turks have been grumbling about their claim on the region, and especially the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which lie just outside the ‘official’ borders of the region. To achieve such a goal, they have even militarily invaded the region dozens of times under the pretext of ‘protecting the Turkmen of Iraq’ or ‘fighting the PKK.’

The late Turgut Özal, Turkey’s former Prime Minister and then President, flirted with the idea of re-integration of this region with Turkey. He appeared to believe that a form of federation between Turkey and the Kurdistan region of Iraq would be mutually beneficial and could potentially solve Turkey’s Kurdish problems. [1]

In 2003, with the American-led invasion of Iraq, hopes for an independent country were renewed by the Kurds and with it, Turkish claims over the region. The Turks began threatening and intimidating the Kurds of Iraq. During those days, two cardinal issues were at the centre of many discussions between Ankara and Washington: compensation for the damage the war would cause Turkey, and more importantly, the prevention of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. [2]

This prompted Turkish Parliament speaker Ömer Izgi to state that ‘Turkey will not allow a Kurdish state to be established. Turkey would be involved in Mosul, Kirkuk and Suleimaniya. We will prevent a Kurdish state from being established.’

Turkish soldiers on the ground in Kurdistan, Feb 2008.

The then parliament deputy speaker Murat Sökmenoğlu mentioned that Kirkuk is a Turkmen city. He also stated: ‘Attempts to open a second gate drove Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) leader Mesoud Barzani crazy. Spoilt Kurds like spoilt Greeks get U.S. support and have spoilt manners.’ [3]

The most interesting of these comments came from the previous Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yaşar Yakış, who announced that Turkey was inspecting old treaties to ‘find out whether or not we have lost our rights to this region,’ indirectly trying to renew their claims on the long lost Vilayet of Mosul. [4]

Again in 2007, Turks insisted on their claim over the region by using other excuses, such as the Kirkuk issue. The Turks expressed their concerns over the fate of Kirkuk, fearing that if the Kurds annexed Kirkuk into their autonomous region they would eventually want to carve out an independent Kurdish state. As a result, the Turks launched a two-day symposium titled ‘Kirkuk 2007,’ which ended in the Turkish capital Ankara with a final declaration calling for ‘the suspension of the referendum (Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution) until the Iraqi constitution is reviewed.’ The irony was that members of all segments of society were called upon to participate in the conference (Iraqi Sunni, Shi’ite, Turkmen, Assyrians, etc) except for Kurds, who have always made up the majority of the population in Kirkuk.

Turkish military convoy en route to South Kurdistan, Feb 2008. AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

On 15 January 2007, Turhan Çömez, who was a leading member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), stated that ‘Turkey should announce that it will not recognise the results of a referendum on the future of Kirkuk under these conditions. And we should also announce that we are going to intervene if civil war erupts in Kirkuk.’

Turkey also had amassed 240,000 soldiers along the Iranian and Iraqi borders and they were awaiting orders to enter the Kurdistan region under the pretext of going after ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters’ and to ‘protect the Iraqi Turkmen population.’ [5]

In late 2007 and early 2008, Turkey indeed muscled its way into the Kurdistan region. The invasion by the Turkish military ‘coincided’ with a visit to the city of Kirkuk by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which once again highlighted the real heart of the issue. That is, it was all about the Kurds in the South and their approach for independence which made the Turks so nervous and impatient that they had to ‘warn’ the Kurds not to go too far with their endeavours. [6] [7]

Walking past Turkish shops inside Sofy Mall (Hewlêr). Photo credit: REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Ever since then, relations between the two sides have been relatively calm, with no more talk about invasions or occupations from the Turkish side. It may seem as if in the end the Turks have given up on achieving their long cherished dream of controlling what was once the Mosul Vilayet. But in fact, now Turkey is closer than ever to taking control of the area, as if they have finally learnt that in this modern era of fixed borders one cannot just force its way into other countries and try to take their land by force, especially not at a time when there are much easier and far more furtive ways to do that.

From then on, what is seen by distant observers is that the gap between Southern Kurds and Turks is narrowing, and to them this has been achieved through Turkish economic investment miracle. But the truth is hidden behind the scenes, and this is what many, if not almost all, usually miss. That is the Turks of yesterday, whose greatest achievements can be summed up by the many genocidal campaigns perpetrated against those around them, especially the century-long ethnic and cultural genocide against the Northern Kurds, which still continues to this day, are the very people that are ‘investing’ in Southern Kurdistan. It is frightening to think that the very people so well known for their extreme oppression of the Kurds and devastation of Kurdish culture there are now ‘helping’ the Kurds in the South with their economic recovery.

Trucks lined up at Ibrahim Khalil border crossing

Turkey, through its ‘economic investment,’ or as some might call it, ‘economic invasion,’ has seemingly taken almost complete control over the Federal Kurdistan region. Wherever you go you see Turkish shopping malls, Turkish supermarkets, Turkish hotels, Turkish housing units, Turkish clothes, Turkish furniture, Turkish this and Turkish that. [8]

Statistics indicate that about 55 percent of the foreign firms in the Kurdistan region – 640 of 1,170 – were from Turkey, while by comparison, only 31 were German and two were French. [9] Some estimates put the number even higher at 700 Turkish companies, roughly accounting for two thirds of the foreign companies in the region. [10] Even at the four-day Erbil International Fair, which took place at late October 2010, close to 850 companies participated; with Turkish ones at the forefront of the list with 76 companies. [10] It is also estimated that about 15,000 Turks work in Erbil alone. In fact, one report by the Economist put the number of Turkish citizens in the Kurdistan region at around 50,000 and the number of Turkish companies at around 1,200. [11]

Shopkeeper sells Turkish alcohol at shop in Hewlêr. Photo credit: REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

This in fact is a one-way deal in which Turks sell, Kurds buy; Turks build and Kurds pay, and has made the Kurdistan region fully reliant on the Turks. One example is the Ibrahim Khalil Border Gate in the northern Kurdish town of Zakho where 1,500 trucks pass daily, bringing Turkish building materials, clothes, furniture, food and pretty much everything else that fills the Turkish-built shops in Kurdistan.

Aydın Selcen, who heads the Turkish consulate in Erbil, put it correctly when he said ‘We are going to integrate with this country. Roads, railroads, airports, oil and gas pipelines—there will be a free flow of people and goods between the two sides of the border.’ [12] He recently noted too that ‘[i]n all aspects, our relations will diversify, deepen and expand. So this means we are going to have an increased flow of people and goods and information between the two sides. We will see more joint ventures here; we are going to see not only increased contracting business but also more direct investment from Turkey.’ [13]

Some refuse to recognise the dangerous potential of what is happening. They instead write columns praising this new ‘positive dynamic between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan’ and ask ‘[t]o whom should we give credit for this?’ [14]

This one-sided ‘deal with the devil’ deserves no ‘credit’, but rather careful scrutiny. In the short run it may seem as it has given a boost to the Kurdish economy, but in the long run, what can be predicted is that Turkey will use its dominance in the region and will use such influence and total control for its own objectives, with the most important to be the prevention of any sort of self-rule, liberation and freedom by the Kurds in Kurdistan region.

Part Two of ‘Reclaiming the Mosul Vilayet’ will be published on Kurdistan Commentary tomorrow, Tuesday, 25 January 2011.


[1] van Bruinessen, Martin. The Kurds, Turkey and Iran after America’s Iraq war: new possibilities? Summary of paper presented at the IDF Meeting on “Justice, Security and Democracy”, The Hague, 25 May 2003.

[2] Bar’el, Zvi. Nightmare scenarios for all. Ha’aretz, 28 February 2003.

[3] Rozoff, Rick. Turkey Threatens N. Iraq Invasion; US Ambassador Supports Turkey. Stop Nato, 17 October 2002.

[4] Turkey claims Kirkuk and Mosul oil-producing areas in Iraq. Alexander’s Gas & Oil Connections. v8, #4, 20 February 2003

[5] Senanayake, Sumedha. Turkey keeps nervous eye on Kirkuk. Asia Times Online, 24 January 2007.

[6] Turkish troops enter north Iraq. BBC News, 22 February 2008.

[7] Bruno, Greg. Turkey’s Iraq Surge. Council on Foreign Relations, 19 December 2007.

[8] El Gamal, Rania. Turkey, Iran battle for clout, deals in Iraq. Reuters, 08 December 2010.

[9] Aqrawi, Shamal. Investment a “success story” in Iraqi Kurdistan. Reuters (via KurdNet), 30 September 2010.

[10] Schute Jr., Harry. Missed business opportunity in Kurdistan. The Washington Times, 02 December 2010.

[11] Iraq’s Kurds and Turkey: An unusual new friendship. The Economist, 19 February 2009.

[12] Shadid, Anthony. Resurgent Turkey Flexes Its Muscles Around Iraq. New York Times, 14 January 2011.

[13] In all aspects our relations will diversify, deepen and expand. The Kurdish Globe, 08 January 2011.

[14] Romano, David. When the Cup Is Half Full. Rudaw, 20 January 2011.

7 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Mosul Vilayet: Turkey’s economic, cultural and political re-occupation of Kurdistan, Part One

  1. And i am angry again.
    “Turkey will not allow a Kurdish state to be established. ” – who, they think, they are? the owners of the world? they can allow or not things in their artificial “country”, not in Kurdistan.
    They want Mosul, Kerkuk – what else? maybe New York?

    And i hope and believe Kurds are wise enough to copy with the turkish “business” problem in South.

  2. Indeed Kulka, they want Mosul and Kirkuk, and ever since the U.S led invasion on Iraq, they have relentlessly tried to increase their influence in those areas, and in fact, throughout the whole Kurdistan region.

    The total dominance by the Turks in S.Kurdistan is very likely and it is a frightening prospect. After all the sacrifices the Kurds have made in the South to gain the little freedom they have, it would be such a shame now to bring upon themselves a Turkish occupation, as it is said; “Out of the frying pan, into the fire”.

  3. my God, i cant kick their turkish a** myself… We have to encourage european countries to invest in Kurdistan and first of all established kurdish domestic industry – factories, production, tourism. but i need all society to cooperate. i will try to do my best to improve the situation – specially i think about tourism to be developed. people who will come to see Kurdistan, will also see what a great country it is and it may cause the future investments. i am learning sorani and my plan is to go to Kurdistan for few months (in march i am going for few days, but later on) so i would be able to offer the giude and intrpretors service for travel agencies of eastern europe. but i cant do too much myself. help me, guys.

  4. This almost total and singular dependency on Turkish firms and companies by the KRG must be observed and analyzed carefully. As explained in the article, there are over 700 Turkish companies in the region, by comparison, only 31 German and two French companies operate there.

    Indeed, boosting tourism in the region could be very beneficial for the Kurds. One can say that Kurdistan is the Switzerland of the Middle-East, with all its mountains and natural beauties, but the KRG’s willingness to contribute financially in this sector remains to be seen.

  5. An article appeared today in Rudaw ( that states that the ‘increasing focus here on locally made products could mean Kurdistan’s capital is headed in the direction of a more self-reliant economy.’ However, it also mentions that the region ‘imports almost everything it consumes from abroad, mainly from its neighbor, Turkey.’

    To counter this dependence on Turkey the KRG should focus more training for Kurds and investing in local talent who can then start Kurdish businesses. Otherwise a ‘self-reliant’ economy is not feasible.

  6. so lets take the things in our own hands, dont wait for KRG. lets be like kaka Hazem Kurda. He spent much of his life abroad, made money and created Pank Resort – the exclusive tourist areain beutiful place. We dont have to invest millions – lets do small things – whatever one can do, should do. you know, one of my dream is to see Qalla in Hewler as a place where tourist from othwer countries will have a chance to see and learn the richness of kurdish culture – Qalla as a hudge world,s uniqe museum – a kind of “interactive” – where people could see by their own eyes the process of making nan bread, and other kurdish food, kurdish traditional clothes and shoes (how they are made), listen to kurdfish music, performed by the musician (not profesional one, but ordinary people) – things like that.
    i am going to Kurdistan in march – i will live in Naz city, in privat flat – the owner put the room for rent for tourist and i found it in internet – thats great, even if a little bit more expensive than cheap hotels – doesnt matter, but its real kurdish home – and even if in Naz City not very traditional one, a bit modern, but still kurdish – and i hope i will have the honour to eat with kurdish owners of the flat. these are little things, but how much important.
    and i would like to see the product with the label MADE IN KURDISTAN.

  7. P.S. long time i am not buying turkish things, i even refuse to eat their products – i cant….

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