"It is appalling," said Vebi Altagul, a teacher at one of Istanbul's high schools. "What have these people done to deserve such a thing? Why should the Turkmen be made to pay for others' supposed terrorism?"

The attack on Tal Afar, which Iraqi Turkmen groups in Turkey say has left 120 dead and over 200 injured, is also widely being seen as a part of a campaign to ethnically cleanse the Turkmen from northern Iraq.

"Some people are uncomfortable with the ethnic structure of this area, so, using claims of a terrorist threat, they went in and killed people," said Professor Suphi Saatci of the Kirkuk Foundation,
one of several Turkmen groups in Turkey.

Turkey contains a large ethnic Turkmen population and Ankara has long seen itself as the guardian of their rights, particularly over the border in northern Iraq, where they constitute a significant minority.

Fearing disability

As a result, the Turkish government has also reacted over the attacks, pointing out that Tal Arfa is a predominantly Turkmen town in a region dominated by ethnic Kurds.

"What have these people
done to deserve such a thing? Why should the Turkmen be made to pay for others' supposed terrorism?"

Vebi Altagul, 
Istanbul teacher

Ankara fears that a solidly Kurdish northern Iraq might lead to the creation of a Kurdish state south of its borders, destabilising its own large ethnic Kurdish population.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned the US on Monday that if it did not cease its attacks on Tal Arfa, Ankara might withdraw its support for the US in Iraq.

"I told [US Secretary of State Colin Powell] that what is being done there is harming the civilian population, that it is wrong, and that if it continues, Turkey's cooperation on issues regarding
Iraq will come to a total stop," Gul said.

Threat working?

Turkey acts as a major supply route for US forces in Iraq so the warning is not an empty one. And it may have already yielded results.

"Turkey has been putting pressure on the US to stop the assault," Asif Sertturkmen of the Iraqi Turkmen Front told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday from Ankara.

"We heard this afternoon, as of 4pm, that the US troops had withdrawn from the town and were calling on Turkmen to return.

"Few have though, as the town is still without electricity or water and full of unexploded bombs, our sources there tell us."

The US denies the extent of the damage, saying it has avoided civilian targets and killed only terrorists it says were infiltrating the town from nearby Syria.

But few in Turkey believe such denials. The assault had already led to demonstrations in Turkey by ethnic Turkmen and many Turks. On Monday several hundred gathered outside the US embassy in Ankara to protest.

Kurdish influence

There is bewilderment at the scale and fury of the US attack.

"The US troops before had no problem with the Turkmen," said Sertturkmen. "Not one bullet had been fired at the soldiers, nothing. The US say they went in to fight terrorists, so where are the terrorists?"

There is a fear that the assault is part of a wider campaign to establish Kurdish control over all of northern Iraq.

Iraq Turkmen recently protested
against Kurds over land

Some point to the removal of Turkmen officials from governing positions in the region and their replacement by Kurds. Others allege that the Iraqi police force deployed in northern Iraq is dominated by members of Kurdish factions.

"The US is acting completely under the direction of the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq," says Saatci. "Tal Afar is a clearly Turkmen area and this is something they were very jealous of."

Following the outbreak of fighting, Iraqi Turkmen Front officials say some 350,000 ethnic Turkmen have fled the area. Many, they say, are now living in the countryside in tents or have gone to other towns and villages to find shelter.

Saatci also suggested there was another reason for an attack on the Turkmen at this particular time.

"Turkey was planning to open another border gate between itself and northern Iraq at Ovakent," he said. "This was because the other gate, at Harbur, was subject to extortion by the Kurdish groups controlling them. They wanted to stop this happening."

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials deny any such attempt at altering the ethnic balance. Yet, a claim last week by Mesud Barzani, leader of one of the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), that Kirkuk "is a Kurdish city" and one the KDP was
willing to fight for, have sent jitters among the Turkmen and the Turks.

Many Turkmen see Kirkuk, one of Northern Iraq"s largest cities, as historically theirs.

Missed chance

While the Turkmen of northern Iraq have long constituted a significant minority in the region, they have felt under increasing pressure since the US-led invasion. Many also blame the Turkish government for not intervening to support them earlier.

Many have been killed or wounded
in the Tal Afar battles

"We are Iraqis - Turkic but not Turks," says Sertturkmen. "We don't like to be the victim of misunderstandings between the US and Turkey.

"This was especially so after the Turkish Parliament voted against allowing US troops to use Turkish soil to launch the invasion last year."

A request from the US military to use Turkish bases to attack Iraq last year was rejected by Turkish lawmakers. Many Turkmen see this as a missed opportunity for Ankara to prevent Kurdish domination of northern Iraq.

For many ordinary Turks though, the issue is a clearly humanitarian one.

"When you see what is happening to them, it saddens you greatly," said Yesim Talat, an office worker in Istanbul. "Their homes are being destroyed. Where can they go now?"