Army, Kurds set to face off in Kirkuk

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Op­er­a­tion launched to re­take Kur­dish-held po­si­tions around the dis­puted oil city amid a bit­ter row that fol­lows an in­de­pen­dence vote last month |

The Iraqi army launched an op­er­a­tion to re­take Kur­dish-held po­si­tions around the dis­puted oil city of Kirkuk yes­ter­day 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 US-led coali­tion in its fight against Daesh 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 mil­i­tants swept through much of north­ern and western Iraq.

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.

“The Iraqi army is ad­vanc­ing to re­take po­si­tions that were taken over dur­ing the events of June 2014,” an army gen­eral, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, said. He said troops had al­ready taken one base west of Kirkuk yes­ter­day morn­ing af­ter Pesh­merga fighters with­drew dur­ing the night with­out a fight.

“We with­drew to our lines in the area around Kirkuk and we will de­fend the city in the event of an at­tack,” the Pesh­merga’s Kirkuk com­man­der, Shaikh Ja’afar Mustafa, said.

Mustafa said there had been an at­tempt to ne­go­ti­ate a dis­en­gage­ment of forces through Iraqi Pre­mier Haider Al Abadi but it had been over­ruled by field com­man­ders.

“We in­formed the mil­i­tary com­man­ders on the ground that we were in touch (with Al Abadi) and that he said our prob­lems would be set­tled by di­a­logue within 48 hours,” he said.

“But the mil­i­tary com­man­ders re­torted that they had or­ders to ad­vance in these ar­eas and that they were not wor­ried about state­ments from Al Abadi.”

A top aide to Iraqi Kur­dish leader Ma­soud Barzani vowed that Pesh­merga forces would de­fend their po­si­tions “at any cost”. “Thou­sands of heav­ily armed Pesh­merga units are in their po­si­tions,” Hemin Hawrami said.

The Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties ac­cused the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces (PMF) — 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.

Hawrami urged the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to call on the Iraqi prime min­is­ter to “or­der PMF to pull back if he can or if they lis­ten to him”.

Thou­sands of heav­ily armed fighters had been de­ployed to re­sist the of­fen­sive “at any cost” and called for in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion

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