US Will Pay the Bill If Kirkuk Plunges into Turmoil Turkish PM Warns

ANKARA (AFP)–The United States will bear the consequences of ethnic turmoil in Kirkuk if it fails to prevent the oil-rich city in northern Iraq from falling under Kurdish control–Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Thursday.

"Any wrong move in Kirkuk will have a negative impact on peace in Iraq in the future," Erdogan told reporters at Ankara airport before he flew out to Davos–Switzerland for the World Economic Forum.

"The United Nations–America–and the other coalition forces should never allow an unfavorable structure there," he said. "If they turn a blind eye to such a mistake–they will pay the bill in the future."

Ankara is vehemently opposed to Kurdish control of Kirkuk–which many Kurds want to incorporate into their enclave in northern Iraq and even see as the capital of a future independent Kurdish state–a nightmare scenario for Iraq’s neighbors.

Separatist moves in northern Iraq–Ankara fears–may spill over to adjoining southeastern Turkey–which is home to its own large and restive Kurdish community.

Erdogan’s remarks were the latest in a series of warnings issued by Ankara since mid-January when the Iraqi Kurds reached a deal with Baghdad that cleared the way for an estimated 100,000 Kurds said to have been expelled from Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein–to vote for the local government in Sunday’s elections.

The deal effectively tipped the balance of power to the Kurds–fanning ethnic tensions in the city–which is also home to a large number of Arabs and Turkmens–a community of Turkish descent backed by Ankara.

Turkey has charged that more Kurds than those expelled in the past have now settled in the city and registered for the elections.

Critics in Ankara believe that the population shift is taking place with the tacit approval of the United States.

Crisis Group Warns of Regional Conflict

The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned on Thursday that ethnic tensions in Kirkuk are the biggest threat hanging over the country’s stability and could spark a regional conflict.

"In northern Iraq–largely unnoticed–a conflict is brewing that–if allowed to boil over–could precipitate civil war–break-up of the country and in a worst-case scenario Turkish intervention," said the report.

The ICG–an international conflict resolution think-tank–warned that aggressive rhetoric had been festering unchecked in the ethnic tinderbox of Kirkuk since the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime–as Kurds seek to the right the wrongs of the old regime.

The ICG said that as US attention is shifting to other troublespots in Iraq–the neutralizing influence of US troops is receding–and the Kurds–Arabs–Turkmens–and Chaldo-Assyrians of Kirkuk "find themselves in a violent stand-off."

"Turkey is anchoring its strategy in commitment to the political process in Baghdad? (and) is banking on progress in accession talks with the European Union to reduce any appetite for secession its Kurdish population might still harbor," the ICG said.

But "public pressures resulting from Ankara’s manipulation of the Iraqi Turkmen question and the continued deployment of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil could create a dynamic of their own–possibly precipitating military intervention in Kirkuk," it warned.

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