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Turkish nationalist leader says thousands ready to fight for Iraq Turkmen

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thousands of Turkish volunteers are ready to fight in Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities to defend the country’s Turkmen population, the head of Turkey’s nationalist opposition said on Wednesday.

Devlet Bahceli said the minority Turkmen, who have close ethnic ties to Turkey, would not be abandoned in Kirkuk.

The city, home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, has been controlled by Kurdish peshmerga fighters since 2014 and Kurdish authorities included it in this week’s referendum for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, angering the Baghdad government.

On Wednesday Iraq’s parliament asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to take control of Kirkuk’s oilfields, raising the possibility of military confrontation.

“At least 5,000 nationalist volunteers are ready and waiting to join the fight of existence, unity and peace in the Turkish cities where Turkmens live, notably Kirkuk,” Bahceli, the head of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said in a statement on the party’s website.

“The Turkmens are not unprotected and alone. They will never be abandoned to painful ethnic genocide and statelessness. Our decision is definite, our position is clear, our word is our bond,” Bahceli said.

Bahceli’s party is not in government and does not set policy, but its staunchly nationalist agenda reflects the views of a segment of Turkish society which fiercely opposes the idea of an independent Kurdistan and supports Iraq’s Turkmens.

Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the region and fears that the referendum in northern Iraq will fuel separatism in its southeast where Kurdish PKK fighters have waged an insurgency for three decades.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also warned this week that Ankara would intervene militarily if the Turkmen population in Iraq was targeted.

Reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Dolan