In comments published in a newspaper interview on Monday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul expressed renewed concerns that more Kurds than those expelled under Saddam Hussein's rule had settled in Kirkuk.

"We are observing that the situation has reached dangerous proportions," Gul told the English-language Turkish Daily News.

He added the demographic structure of the city, which is also home to large numbers of Turkmen - a community of Turkish descent backed by Ankara - had been altered.

"Now our fear is the possibility that these gross changes in the demography of Kirkuk could trigger an ethnic confrontation, which has not been seen so far."

Clear borders

"If our brothers [Turkmen] are not treated well, if they are subjected to oppression, such developments will hurt us deeply, and in a democratic society administrations cannot remain indifferent, or merely spectators, to such developments," Gul said.

"Now our fear is the possibility that these gross changes in the demography of Kirkuk could trigger an ethnic confrontation, which has not been seen so far"

Abdullah Gul,
Turkish foreign minister

The minister did not say what action Turkey could take but stressed that Ankara had no territorial ambitions over Iraq and respects its borders.

"Our borders are clear. We have no territorial designs. We have no territorial demands on any country. When we talk about the integrity of Iraq, we mean the internationally recognised borders of Iraq," Gul said.

Ankara says that many of the Kurds who moved to Kirkuk after the US-led occupation of Iraq in March 2003 and who voted in Sunday's elections have no bonds with the city and sees the influx as part of a Kurdish design to take control of the city and make it the capital of a future independent Kurdish state.

Media blitzing Barzani

Many Turkish newspapers on Monday ran front-page reports quoting Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, who heads one of two Kurdish factions controlling the north, as saying that Iraqi Kurds would one day have their own independent state.

"The elections end, their mask comes off," said the daily Aksam, referring to the Kurds, while the Vatan daily headlined "Barzani challenges Turkey".

Turkey fears Iraqi Kurds will try 
to form an independent state

Kurdish independence is a nightmare scenario for Turkey, which fears that such a development will fan separatism among its own Kurds in the southeast of the country and create turmoil in the region.

In a bid to allay Ankara's concerns, a top US official said after talks with Gul that Washington supported the unity of Iraq and that the settlement of the dispute over Kirkuk would not be left to a certain ethnic group.

Iraqi issue

"The issue of Kirkuk is an important one... It is going to be worked on by the Iraqis from the point of view that this is not a matter for one group or another but for the Iraqi people in general. We support that view," Douglas Feith, the outgoing US undersecretary of defence for policy, said.

Washington "strongly believes that it is crucial that the territorial integrity of Iraq be preserved ... and that problems like Kirkuk be solved in a way that reinforces the unity and territorial integrity of the country", he added.

But Turkish officials remain cautious, welcoming the Iraqi elections as a step towards democracy in the war-torn country but also warning that they will keep a close eye on the results of the vote in Kirkuk.

"When making this assessment [of the poll results], the implications of the attempts to alter the demographic structure in northern Iraq will also be taken into consideration," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a written statement.