Kurds boost Kirkuk pres­ence, pull back de­fense lines

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties said Fri­day they had sent thou­sands more troops to Kirkuk to con­front “threats” of Iraqi mil­i­tary at­tack, but also pulled back de­fense lines around the dis­puted oil-pro­duc­ing area slightly to ease ten­sions.

Tens of thou­sands of Kur­dish pesh­merga sol­diers have been sta­tioned in and near Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000 have ar­rived since Thurs­day, Kos­rat Ra­sul, vice pres­i­dent in the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment, said Fri­day.

The KRG Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ex­pressed alarm late Thurs­day at what it called a sig­nif­i­cant Iraqi mil­i­tary buildup south of Kirkuk, “in­clud­ing tanks, ar­tillery, Humvees and mor­tars.”

“These forces are ap­prox­i­mately 3 kilo­me­ters from pesh­merga forces. In­tel­li­gence shows in­ten­tions to take over nearby oil fields, [an] air­port and [a] mil­i­tary base,” it said in a state­ment.

Kur­dish se­cu­rity sources later said that the pesh­merga had shifted their de­fense lines by 3 kilo­me­ters to 10 kilo­me­ters south of Kirkuk to re­duce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which moved into some of the va­cated po­si­tions with­out in­ci­dent.

The pesh­merga’s Kirkuk com­man­der, Jaa­far Sheikh Mustafa, said his forces had with­drawn from ar­eas they had re­cently en­tered dur­ing fight­ing against Daesh (ISIS) in the west of the prov­ince.

“We with­drew to our lines in the area around Kirkuk and we will de­fend the city in the event of an at­tack,” he said. “If the Iraqi army ad­vances, we will fight.”

A top aide to Iraqi Kur­dish leader Mas­soud Barzani vowed the pesh­merga would de­fend their po­si­tions “at any cost.”

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

An Iraqi mil­i­tary spokesman said that mil­i­tary move­ments near Kirkuk aimed only to “in­spect and se­cure” the nearby re­gion of Haw­i­jah re­cap­tured from Daesh mil­i­tants a week ago.

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

Speak­ing from an area south of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Kirkuk, the gen­eral said fed­eral troops had re­taken “Base 102” west of the city af­ter pesh­merga fight­ers with­drew dur­ing the night with­out a fight.

The Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties ac­cused Al-Hashd al-Shaabi – para­mil­i­tary units dom­i­nated by Iran-trained Shi­ite mili­tia – of mass­ing fight­ers in two mainly Shi­ite Turk­men ar­eas south of Kirkuk in readi­ness for an at­tack.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi has re­peat­edly de­nied any plans to go fur­ther and ac­tu­ally at­tack the ter­ri­tory.

The Bagh­dad cen­tral gov­ern­ment has taken steps to iso­late the au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion since its over­whelm­ing vote for in­de­pen­dence in a Sept. 25 ref­er­en­dum, in­clud­ing ban­ning in­ter­na­tional flights from go­ing there.

Bagh­dad’s tough line, rul­ing out talks sought by the Kurds un­less they re­nounce the break­away move, is backed by neigh­bors Turkey and Iran given their own siz­able Kur­dish mi­nori­ties – and a long-run­ning Kur­dish in­sur­gency in Turkey’s case.

KRG Prime Min­is­ter Nechir­van Barzani urged tra­di­tional Kur­dish ally the United States, the Euro­pean Union and the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil “to rapidly in­ter­vene to pre­vent a new war.”

Hawrami also urged Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Sis­tani, Iraq’s high­est Shi­ite re­li­gious au­thor­ity, to in­ter­vene and call Abadi to “or­der Al-Hashd al Shaabi to pull back if he can or if they lis­ten to him.”

Ger­many, which has tra­di­tion­ally good re­la­tions with both Bagh­dad and the KRG, called for mea­sures to defuse ten­sions.

“We would like to ask them to meet those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and not to es­ca­late the con­flict,” Ger­man gov­ern­ment spokesman St­ef­fen Seib­ert told re­porters in Ber­lin.

Kirkuk, a city of more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple, lies just out­side KRG ter­ri­tory but pesh­merga forces de­ployed there in 2014 when Iraqi se­cu­rity forces col­lapsed in the face of a Daesh on­slaught.

The pesh­merga de­ploy­ment pre­vented Kirkuk’s oil fields from fall­ing into mil­i­tant hands.

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