* Exercise is first headcount since political crisis ended
* Opposition says government plans to manipulate the process
* Government warns of dangerous return to ethnic politics
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, March 17 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's main opposition party has accused President Alassane Ouattara of using a census launched on Monday to boost his re-election chances, drawing warnings from the government of a return to ethnic politics.
The Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) of former president Laurent Gbagbo said the government was recruiting the census's 30,000 agents along ethnic lines to pave the way for recent immigrants to vote in presidential polls next year.
"The FPI denounces the regime's hidden aim ... to consecrate a fait accompli in favour of the new immigrants who massively entered Ivory Coast under cover of the post-election war," a statement released by the party read.
"This is extremely dangerous," government spokesman Bruno Kone told Reuters in response to the FPI's accusations. "There is no connection between the census and the electoral lists. This kind of debate is really toxic."
Ethnic identity and disputes over who should be considered Ivorian were at the root of a decade of political turmoil that ended in 2011 with a brief post-election civil war.
The West African nation, the world's top cocoa grower, was initially due to count its inhabitants in 2008.
But the northern half of the country was then occupied by rebels. Claiming to be fighting discrimination against northerners and foreigners, they had launched a failed attempt to oust then-president Gbagbo in 2002.
Estimates of Ivory Coast's current population range from 22 million to 25 million but the government says it needs precise statistics to help guide its post-war development plan.
CRITICAL FOR STABILITY
More than 3,000 people were killed during months of violence sparked by the refusal of Gbagbo - then the incumbent president - to accept his defeat to Ouattara in an election in late 2010.
Gbagbo is currently awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the violence, which often saw victims singled out due to their ethnic identity.
Next year's vote is seen as critical to cementing newfound political stability in French-speaking West Africa's largest economy.
"An emerging country must have precise statistics," Ouattara, who was twice barred from running for the presidency amid accusations he was of foreign origin, told journalists shortly after completing his census interview.
"This operation is capital for all Ivorians and all those who live in our beautiful country," he said.
Parliament in August approved changes to the country's nationality laws, a condition of the first peace agreement signed between the government and the rebels in 2003.
The revisions aim to ease access to citizenship for millions of foreigners who are either long-term residents or were born in Ivory Coast.
The census is due to be followed by a separate operation to distribute identity cards later this year. Voter rolls must be revised before the polls late next year.
However, Planning and Development Minister Albert Toikeusse Mabri, whose ministry is overseeing the census, said that the processes were completely separate.
"We survey everyone in Ivory Coast," he told Reuters. "Are they Ivorians? Are they of voting age or not? That's not our role."
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)