Baghdad launches Kirkuk ops as Kurds mobilize
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.