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The peshmerga’s Kirkuk commander, Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, said his forces had withdrawn from areas they had recently entered during fighting against Daesh (ISIS) in the west of the province.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