ANKARA (AFP)–Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq had a Kurdish "identity" and vowed to fight any force attempting to oppress its people–whether Kurds or other ethnic groups.
Barzani–head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)–was speaking after talks in Ankara with Turkish leaders–who are worried that the Iraqi Kurds are plotting to take control of the city–which also has a large population of Turkmens–a community with Turkish roots.
"If anyone–if any regime or system wants to continue the Arabization or oppression of the people of Kirkuk–we will defend their rights and we are ready to fight for them," Barzani told AFP through an interpreter.
He said the Iraqi Kurds would defend not only the Kurdish people of Kirkuk but "any other group or minority" in the city.
The Iraqi Kurds say Kirkuk was overwhelmingly Kurdish in the 1950s before Baghdad started a deliberate campaign of "Arabization," during which thousands of Arabs were encouraged to settle in the city.
Many also demand that Kirkuk be made the capital of an independent Kurdish state.
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership–however–says that city should be incorporated in an enlarged autonomous Kurdish region but reject the idea of independence–knowing it would be unacceptable to Turkey and other neighbors.
Ankara has repeatedly warned the Iraqi Kurds against attempts to upset the demography of the region.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul reiterated the warning in their meetings with Barzani on Monday–Turkish diplomats said.
In an apparent bid to placate Ankara–Barzani promised that Iraqi Kurds would work for peaceful co-existence between the ethnic groups of Kirkuk.
"Our position is that the identity of Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. But it is an Iraqi city," he said. "The promotion of co-existence and fraternity (in Kirkuk) has to be a priority for everybody. We are working in that direction."
Ankara fears that Kurdish control of the area’s oil resources could further strengthen the Iraqi Kurds whom it suspects of plotting to break away from Baghdad.
Such a prospect–Ankara worries–could fan separatist sentiment among its own restive Kurds in southeast Turkey.
"Kirkuk is a city where all ethnic elemen’s can settle. It is not a place where a certain party can claim control," Erdogan told the Aksam daily in an interview published on Tuesday.
"We are in favor of Iraq’s territorial integrity. We are against any ethnic group establishing control over another," he said.
The question of the Kurds’ return to Kirkuk has fueled tensions in the city.
The interim government in Baghdad has so far roundly rejected calls for the expulsion of the Arab settlers.
Barzani said his talks in Ankara confirmed that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds continued to differ on some issues on the future of Iraq even though they shared the same vision on many others.
"But in general I can say very happily that it was a very positive atmosphere…We both agreed that there should be continuous contacts and consultations between us," he said.