Iraq's main Kurdish parties are encouraging about 500,000 Kurds to settle in the disputed multi-ethnic city of Kerkuk ahead of the next election, a politician from the Turkmens’ community said Sunday.
Ali Mahdi, a member of Kerkuk's local council, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that the population in the oil-rich city has increased from 870,000 in 2003 to over 1.3 million in 2008.
This has prompted the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Democratic Union of Kurdistan to move Kurds into the city with the view of changing its ethnic make- up.
The city's main ethnic communities - Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs - are contesting whether the city should become part of the country's Kurdish Autonomous Region or remain part of Iraq.
In this dispute, Turkmens and Arabs are pitted against Kurds.
Which group controls the city and its oil wealth depends largely on the ethnic community that makes up the majority of the population.
A referendum on the issue, which was planned for 2007, has been delayed.
The former regime of President Saddam Hussein launched an ethnic cleansing campaign which saw thousands of Kurds displaced from their homes in the city and thousands of Arabs settled in it.
After the collapse of the Saddam regime, Kurds have been forcing Arabs out of the city in a campaign of intimidation, Mahdi said.
About 100,000 Arabs have left Kerkuk out of 150,000, who were encouraged to settle there by the former regime, Mahdi added.
The Iraqi government is offering Kerkuk's Arab population inducements to return to their original homes in other parts of Iraq.
Mahdi warned of the risk of a civil war in Kerkuk as Arab tribal police units funded by the US military jockey for power against the Kurdish forces known as peshmerga.
The unarmed Turkmens are helplessly caught between Kurds and Arabs, Mahdi said.
The situation in Kerkuk is causing unease in Ankara, which regards itself as the guardians of the Turkish-speaking Turkmens.
'Turkmens have strong cultural and ethnic ties with Turkey, which helps them in times of crisis,' Mahdi said.
Turkey will not resort to military intervention if Turkmens' interests are harmed but will try to resolve the crisis with diplomatic means, Mahdi maintained.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Mahdi said, has responded favourably to a request by Turkmen politicians for arming groups of Turkmen citizens in Kerkuk and neighbouring villages.
The US military has also proposed a change in the ethnic make-up of the local police force to boost the representation of Turkmens.