Erdogan Warns Iraqi Kurds Over Kirkuk

ANKARA (Reuters)–Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey could not stand idly by if Iraqi Kurds seized control of oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq, though he did not spell out what Ankara might do to prevent such a Scenario. Erdogan fears the Kurds want to carve out an independent state in northern Iraq, embracing Kirkuk, which could in turn fan separatism among its own Kurds living in southeast Turkey. Ankara has accused the Kurds of deliberately boosting their numbers in Kirkuk, at the expense of Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkmens, to ensure the city votes in an eventual referendum in favor of being incorporated into Iraq’s Kurdish region. "There are efforts to alter the demographic structure of Kirkuk. We cannot remain a bystander to such developmen’s," Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party in a televised address in parliament. Erdogan said the developmen’s could lead to a more intense level of civil war in Iraq that could harm the wider region. He did not say how Turkey might act. Analysts rule out any military intervention by Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, but say Ankara is likely to increase it diplomatic and commercial pressure on the Kurds. Turkish territory provides crucial land routes for Iraqi oil exports to the West. Turkey wants any future referendum on Kirkuk’s status to lead to power sharing between its ethnic groups and to confirm the city’s place within a politically united Iraq. "Turkey will continue to support Iraq’s political unity and territorial integrity and its efforts to restore stability and establish a state structure in which Shiite and Sunni Muslims can live together," Erdogan said. He also reaffirmed Ankara’s support for its Turkmen ethnic kin in Iraq. "The pictures of Saddam (Hussein’s) execution have confirmed our fears (of civil war)," Erdogan said, referring to the increased tensions between Sunnis and Shiites sparked by last month’s hanging of the former Iraqi dictator. "We are worried that this incident will lead to further dangerous polarization in Iraq," he said. Erdogan has said Iraq’s stability is a greater national priority even than Ankara’s efforts to join the European Union. During a visit to Washington last month, Erdogan urged President George W. Bush to set a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq. This week, Bush is expected to announce an increase in troop numbers to combat the sectarian violence.

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