(photo credit: AP [file])
Turkey's prime minister warned Iraqi Kurdish groups Tuesday against trying to seize control of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Kurdish lawmakers responded by accusing Ankara of interfering in internal Iraqi matters.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would not stand by amid growing tensions among ethnic Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds in Iraq's oil-rich north. Turkish lawmakers are to discuss Kirkuk and Iraq on Thursday, and Turkey's main opposition party has said it would back a cross-border offensive to quell a Kurdish rebellion.
Iraqi Kurds, who claim the region as their own and hope to eventually include Kirkuk in an enclave of self-rule in northern Iraq, responded by accusing Turkey of interfering in Iraqi internal affairs.
Kurdish legislators in Iraq's parliament "condemn this interference in Iraqi affairs by the Turkish government (and) ... call upon parliament to issue a statement condemning them as well," they said in a statement Tuesday.
Kurdish lawmakers urged parliament to "call upon the Iraqi government and the Foreign Ministry to take a decisive stance to stop this interference, and to threaten to cut political and the economic relations with Turkey in case Turkey keeps its interference."
Turkey fears Iraq's Kurds want Kirkuk's lucrative oil to fund a bid for independence that could encourage separatist Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey who have been fighting since 1984 for autonomy.
Erdogan chided an Iraqi Kurdish group for denouncing an Ankara conference on Kirkuk's future, saying Turkey "cannot digest their words" and cannot stand such criticism, recalling how Turkey sheltered more than 500,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees who escaped the Iraqi army's bombardment following a failed Kurdish insurgency in early 1991.
Erdogan reminded Kurds of his country's historical and ethnic ties to the region.
"Turkey did not remain indifferent to the plight of Kurdish peshmergas who were escaping oppression and death," he said. "Today, it will not remain indifferent to the Turkmens, Arabs ... in Kirkuk."
Kirkuk, an ancient city that once was part of the Ottoman Empire, has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of Kurds pushed out of the region under Saddam Hussein's rule have flooded back to Kirkuk.
Kirkuk lies just south of the autonomous Kurdish region stretching across Iraq's northeast. Kurdish leaders want to annex the city, and Iraq's constitution calls for a referendum on the issue by the end of next year.
US legislators have warned that Kirkuk is a "powder keg" and have recommended that the referendum be delayed.