BAGHDAD - Iraqi Turkmen leaders on Monday accused the country's Kurds of exploiting the war on jihadists to dig a trench that would strengthen their grip on expanded territory.

Officials from the Turkmen minority said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was digging the trench roughly following conflict lines between the Islamic State group and Kurdish forces across northern Iraq.

Kurdish officials insisted the trench was not a political act but rather a purely defensive measure aimed at preventing attacks by IS suicide car bombers. ‘We see this move to dig a trench as suspicious,’ Arshad al-Salehi, the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told AFP. ‘It starts in Rabia... and ends in Khanaqin,’ he said. Rabia is a northwestern town on the Syrian border and Khanaqin lies 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the southeast, near the Iranian border. The Turkmens are one of Iraq's largest ethnic minorities and many of their hubs are in disputed areas, which are just beyond the KRG borders but claimed by the Kurds.

The Kurdish peshmerga took over many of those areas on the back of the June 2014 IS offensive that saw the Iraqi federal security forces collapse completely. Salehi said he wanted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to clarify his position on the trench and said he would bring up the issue in parliament.

‘We see it as the beginning of the division of Iraq. It gives reality on the ground to a redrawn geopolitical map,’ he said. Jassem Mohammed Jaafar, a Turkmen MP, also accused the Kurds of using the war against IS as a pretext to further the expansion, and ultimately the secession, of their region.