Army, Kurds set to face off in Kirkuk
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