Turkey's military warned Wednesday that the migration of large numbers of Kurds into the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk could sway the results of the upcoming elections and possibly lead to clashes that could draw Ankara into the dispute.
Kirkuk (search) is a multiethnic city with Kurdish, ethnic Turkish, Arab and Christian populations — but Kurds have been the strongest group in the city since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Kirkuk is also home to 12 percent of Iraq's oil reserves, and Turkey said the resources must be shared equally by all Iraqis.
Turkey has repeatedly warned that Kurdish control of the city would make an independent Kurdish state more viable, a development that Ankara has repeatedly said it won't accept.
Turkey fears that a strong Kurdish entity in northern Iraq could inspire Kurds in Turkey, where Kurdish rebels have battled the Turkish army since 1984.
"Hundreds of thousands of Kurds migrated to Kirkuk and registered to vote," Gen. Ilker Basbug (search), deputy head of the Turkish military, said at a news conference. "This could make the results of the elections questionable."
"Even worse," he added, "these developments could threaten the territorial and political unity of Iraq. We're worried that such a development would pose an important security problem for Turkey."
Basbug stressed that a dispute of election results could lead to clashes. Sunni Arab and ethnic Turkish parties are still deciding whether to contest the Jan. 30 balloting in Kirkuk.
"This could lead to an independent Kurdish state," Basbug said. "There could be clashes, these clashes could trigger an internal war in Iraq."
Basbug said that according to the Iraqi Trade Ministry, some 350,000 Kurds (search) have moved to Kirkuk, but he added that the figure could not be confirmed.
A U.S. military officer in northern Iraq, Col. Lloyd Miles (search), said that some 30,000 displaced people — the vast majority of them Kurdish — have returned to the province. Many Kurds were forced to leave their homes under the rule of Saddam Hussein.