The deputy chief of staff of the country's powerful military, General Ilker Basbug, said on Wednesday that developments could threaten the territorial and political integrity of Iraq and would pose an important security problem for Turkey.

In 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey had threatened to send its troops into the north of the country if it fell under the control of Kurdish forces. It only backed down after Washington applied strong pressure.

Central to Basbug's anxiety is the city of Kirkuk. Sitting on top of some of the world's largest oil fields, the city contains Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen populations. The latter are seen by many in Turkey as ethnic brethren left behind at the collapse of the Ottoman empire after World War I.

Control of the city will be voted on during Sunday's ballot, and Turkey fears that Kurdish groups have been deliberately tampering with Kirkuk's ethnic balance to secure an overwhelming victory.

Swinging the vote

"Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have migrated to Kirkuk to register to vote," General Basbug said.

Turkey fears Kurds deliberately
altered Kirkuk's ethnic balance

Kurdish groups and the region's government deny any wrongdoing. They point out that under Saddam Hussein, a policy of Arabisation in the city had led to the expulsion of much of the Kurdish and Turkmen population.

What is happening now, they say, is just these people returning to their rightful homes.

"We went to Baghdad and met with US, British and Iraqi government officials," Khaned Samih, political adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Arbil, said.

"We came up with an agreement that would make sure Kurds could go back to Kirkuk and vote. This is now just an internal issue for Iraq."

Mass migration

Yet Turkmen groups close to Ankara claim the number of returnees is far higher than those who were expelled.

"Civil war will very
likely break out. This
will have a big effect
on the country's neighbours too"

Asif Sertturkmen,
Iraqi Turkmen Front

"The number we have for the total expelled by Saddam Hussein is 11,865," Asif Sertturkmen of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) said. "The number who have now returned is 110,000. The Kurds keep coming from Iran, Syria and other parts of Iraq."

"Civil war will very likely break out," he said. "This will have a big effect on the country's neighbours too."

Turkey is concerned about this latter point. One columnist of daily newspaper Radikal summed up the fears.

"Northern Iraq is a time-bomb," columnist Cengiz Candar of the daily Radikal writes. "And only the US can defuse it."

"Could Turkey just stand back if the Kurds start massacring the Turkmens or the Arabs?" he asked.

"Probably not. Obviously, the Kurds seem determined to take over Kirkuk - with the support of the US - but this is not acceptable."

Kurdish support

Many in Ankara interpreted US Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher's declaration this week that disputes over Kirkuk were an internal Iraqi matter as backing for the Kurds.

The fear in Turkey is also that a Kurdish victory in the elections will be followed by a declaration of independence for the region or a referendum on this issue.

"This would create a very dangerous situation," Candar said. "For this reason, Turkey wants the status quo preserved - for Iraq to remain a single state."

Turkey already has a big problem
with its own Kurdish population

This brings up another, less commonly voiced, fear - that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would encourage some of Turkey's own ethnic Kurds, largely located across the border in southeastern Turkey, to voice their own separatist demands.

"Certainly, it would not look good if Turkey ended up fighting the Kurds in northern Iraq," Candar says.

Kurdish officials say these fears have been wildly exaggerated.

"Among the Kurdish parties here," Samih said, "there isn't even a hint of a hidden agenda. People have a very strong degree of realism. They do not want to sacrifice their prosperity by ending up fighting the Turks or the US."

Suspicions

At the same time, "many here doubt the sincerity of Turkey's concern for the Turkmens" according to Samih.

"We never heard any responsible politician in Ankara complaining when Saddam Hussein was expelling Turkmens too from Kirkuk," he said. "The result is we are suspicious of Turkey's motives in raising this issue now."

Iraqi Kurds doubt the sincerity of
Ankara's concern for Turkmens

Some point to Turkish nationalist claims that northern Iraq should be part of Turkey. These stem from dissatisfaction with the 1926 settlement that rejected Turkish claims to Mosul and granted the territory to the British empire.

"If Iraq breaks up into three countries," Candar says, "this might be seen here as altering previous legal arrangements over the status of the north."

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials say Turkey would do well to ensure stability across the border by refraining from intervention - particularly if the rest of Iraq fragments after the elections.

"Turkey needs stability in Kurdistan," Samih says, "so the chaos in the south will not come here."