The majority of Iraqi voters in Turkey are Turkmen expatriates wary over the future of the ethnically volatile oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

 

In a high school in a residential neighbourhood in Ankara, voters cast their ballots on Friday amid tight security measures, prompted by fears that tensions between Turkmen and Kurds in Kirkuk might spill over to polling stations in Turkey, a security guard said.

 

"Kirkuk is our soul and blood. It is indispensable for us," said Cemal Bayatli, a Kirkuk-born engineer who has lived in Turkey for the past 32 years.

 

"I came here to vote in order to prove the size of the Turkmen community in Iraq," he added.

 

Both Kurds and Turkmen, an Iraqi minority of Turkish descent, claim Kirkuk as their historical homeland.

 

Inter-communal tensions in the northern city have recently risen over the influx of tens of thousands of Kurds said to have been expelled from Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein, who are set to vote for the local government in Sunday's elections.

 

Balance of power

 

"I don't believe the elections will bring stability to Iraq, but I'm here to protect the existence and the rights of the Turkmens"

Tahsin Saatci, Turkmen voter

The population shift has effectively tipped the balance of power to the Kurds, triggering a series of warnings from Ankara that more Kurds than those expelled in the past have illegally settled in the city.

 

The Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk into their enclave in northern Iraq and even see it as the capital of a future independent Kurdish state, a nightmare scenario for Turkey and other Iraqi neighbours.

 

"I'm voting for the first time," said a visibly excited Tahsin Saatci, 63, who immigrated to Turkey in the 1960s.

 

"I don't believe the elections will bring stability to Iraq, but I'm here to protect the existence and the rights of the Turkmens.

 

"Kirkuk has been a Turkmen city for 300 years. How come that the Turkmens are the minority now? It is impossible," he exclaimed.

 

Pointing to his 19-year-old daughter who was also casting her ballot, Saatci proudly said: "She was born here but if you ask her she will say she is from Kirkuk."

 

About 4000 Iraqis - far fewer than the 30,000 originally projected - have registered to vote in Turkey in the election for an Iraqi legislature, according to the International Organisation for Migration, which is in charge of the vote in 14 foreign countries.

 

They were also voting in two polling stations in Istanbul.

 

Most of the Iraqis in Turkey are Turkmens.