Bagh­dad launches Kirkuk ops as Kurds mo­bi­lize

The Jakarta Post - - WORLD - Ab­dal­lah Ibrahim

The Iraqi army launched an op­er­a­tion to re­take Kur­dish­held po­si­tions around the dis­puted oil city of Kirkuk on Fri­day amid a bit­ter row with the Kurds over a vote for in­de­pen­dence last month.

A se­nior Kur­dish of­fi­cial said thou­sands of heav­ily armed fighters had been de­ployed to re­sist the of­fen­sive “at any cost” and called for in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad to pre­vent the con­fronta­tion wors­en­ing.

The Iraqi army and the Kur­dish pesh­merga have been key al­lies of the United States-led coali­tion in its fight against the Is­lamic State (IS) group and the threat of armed clashes be­tween them poses a ma­jor chal­lenge for Western gov­ern­ments.

Eth­ni­cally di­vided but his­tor­i­cally Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity Kirkuk is one of sev­eral re­gions that pesh­merga fighters took over from the Iraqi army in 2014 when the ji­hadists swept through much of north­ern and western Iraq.

But Bagh­dad is bit­terly op­posed to Kur­dish am­bi­tions to in­cor­po­rate the oil-rich prov­ince in its au­ton­o­mous re­gion in the north and has voiced de­ter­mi­na­tion to take it back.

“Iraqi armed force are ad­vanc­ing to re­take their mil­i­tary po­si­tions that were taken over dur­ing the events of June 2014,” the gen­eral told AFP by tele­phone, ask­ing not to be iden­ti­fied.

He said that fed­eral troops had al­ready taken one base west of Kirkuk on Fri­day morn­ing af­ter pesh­merga fighters with­drew dur­ing the night with­out a fight.

But a top aide to Iraqi Kur­dish leader Mas­sud Barzani vowed that pesh­merga forces would de­fend their po­si­tions.

“Thou­sands of heav­ily armed pesh­merga units are now com­pletely in their po­si­tions around Kirkuk,” Hemin Hawrami said.

“Their or­der is to de­fend at any cost.”

The or­ders came af­ter the Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties ac­cused the Iraqi gov­ern­ment of mass­ing forces in readi­ness for an of­fen­sive to seize Kur­dish-held oil fields in the prov­ince.

They ac­cused the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces (PMF) — para­mil­i­tary units dom­i­nated by Iran-trained Shi­ite mili­tia — of mass­ing fighters in two mainly Shi­ite Turk­men ar­eas south of Kirkuk.

Hawrami urged the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to in­ter­vene and call on Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi to “or­der PMF to pull back if he can or if they lis­ten to him.”

“No es­ca­la­tion from our side. Just de­fend and roll them back if they at­tack,” the se­nior Barzani ad­viser said.

The surge in ten­sions comes two weeks af­ter Kur­dish vot­ers over­whelm­ingly backed in­de­pen­dence in a non-bind­ing ref­er­en­dum that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment con­demned as il­le­gal.

Polling was held in the three prov­inces that have long formed an au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion as well as sev­eral other Kur­dish­held ar­eas, in­clud­ing Kirkuk.

Bagh­dad con­tin­ues to re­ject decades-old Kur­dish am­bi­tions to in­cor­po­rate the city and other his­tor­i­cally Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity ar­eas in their au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

The Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (KRSC) said that the Iraqi army and the PMF had been de­ploy­ing tanks and heavy ar­tillery to Bashir and Taza Khur­matu.

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