KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Police deployed in the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk to prevent any outbreak of ethnic violence ahead of an independence referendum strongly opposed by the central Baghdad government and Western and regional powers.
The Kurdish region plans to hold the Sept. 25 vote despite an Iraqi government warning it is “playing with fire” and U.S. declarations it could undermine the fight against Islamic State militants. The referendum could raise particular tension in Kirkuk, where Kurds vie with Turkmen and Arabs for power.
Turkey, which has moved a detachment of tanks and troops to its border with northern Iraq, said the breakup of Iraq or Syria where Kurds have gained territory and influence in the war against Islamic State could stir global conflict.
Kurdish security and the city police erected checkpoints across Kirkuk after a Kurd was killed in a clash with the guards of a Turkmen political party office in the city.
Two other Kurds and a Turkmen security guard were wounded in the clash that broke out when a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum, carrying Kurdish flags, drove by the Turkmen party office, according to security sources. The Kurdish dead and wounded were among those celebrating, they said.
Turkey has long seen itself as the protector of Iraq’s Turkmen minority.
Turkey’s defence minister warned on Tuesday that the breakup of Iraq or Syria could have dire consequences.
“A change that will mean the violation of Iraq’s territorial integrity poses a major risk for Turkey,” Nurettin Canikli said in Ankara.
“The disruption of Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity will ignite a bigger, global conflict with an unseen end.”
Turkey, with a large Kurdish population of its own in the south of the country, fears the referendum could embolden the outlawed PKK which has waged an insurgency in the southeast since the 1980s.
Canikli said Ankara could not allow the formation of an ethnic-based state in the south of the country. “Nobody should have any doubt that we will take every step, make every decision to stop the growth of risk factors,” he said.
Tensions rose after the Kurdish-led provincial council in Erbil voted this month to include Kirkuk in the referendum despite the fact that the city lies outside the official boundaries of the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields falling into Islamic State hands when they seized the city and other disputed territories as the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an IS advance in 2014. In recent months, IS has been driven back across Iraq, but remains dug in close to Kirkuk.
Iraq announced on Tuesday the start of an attack to dislodge Islamic State from the town of Ana as they push westward towards al-Qaim, the border post with Syria.
Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi‘ite Muslim militias, highlighting the broader perils emanating from the vote, have threatened to remove peshmerga from Kirkuk should the Kurds persist in holding the vote.
The Kurdish authorities are showing no sign of bowing despite intense international pressure and regional appeals, not least from allied Washington, to call off the vote, which Baghdad says is unconstitutional and a prelude to breaking up the country.
Friction between Erbil and Baghdad has simmered for years. The Kurds complain central government has not paid the salaries of civil servants in Kurdistan, while Baghdad has strongly opposed Kurdish sales of oil without its consent.
The two sides cooperated in the battle against Islamic State but many Iraqis wonder whether the central government can unite a country that has suffered sectarian and ethnic violence since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said on Monday he would proceed with the vote in the absence of any international guarantee that Baghdad would hold talks on Kurdish independence,
Although U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from its urban stronghold of Mosul and dashed its dreams of a caliphate, security officials say the jihadists will now wage guerrilla war in a new attempt to destabilise Iraq.
Three people were killed and 34 injured when two suicide bombers targeted a restaurant on the road between the northern towns of Tikrit and Beiji on Tuesday, the Interior Ministry said. Security forces killed a third suicide bomber outside the restaurant.
Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Raya Jalabi in Erbil and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Michael Georgy and Ralph Boulton