Iraqi forces clash with Kurdish troops near strategic border with Syria

Iraqi forces backed by Iran-allied militias on Thursday launched an assault to reclaim more Kurdish-held territory in Iraq, advancing towards a crossing point in the country’s western border region that offers the only access for military operations Americans in northern Syria.

Protracted fighting at the border crossings could severely disrupt US military activity in neighboring Syria. It could also strain the ability of aid organizations to deliver desperately needed supplies to the estimated 300,000 civilians who have fled fighting in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which US-backed forces recovered from the militant group of Islamic State this month.

The new assault in northern Iraq came as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected a Kurdish offer of a ceasefire amid tensions over last month’s Kurdish referendum in favor of Iraq. independence.

The clashes indicate that Baghdad is determined to pursue its goal of exercising full control over all of Iraq’s borders, including crossing points in the north that had been operated by the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government and served as an economic lifeline.

The combined federal police and militia forces left at dawn from the town of Zumar, north of Mosul. The plan appeared to be to take control of the Fishkhabour border post from the Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, and then head for the main border crossing with Turkey – which for decades was the most important outlet for the Kurdish trade.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led international coalition against Islamic State, said the fighting had hampered his efforts to defeat the group, citing the inability to move military equipment and supplies to allied forces in Iraq and Syria.

Dillon said the majority of flights carrying humanitarian supplies to Syria have not been halted, but the transport of heavy military equipment that cannot be flown in has been. This stems from an inability to coordinate with senior Iraqi and Peshmerga officers, who have been unavailable due to ongoing fighting, Dillon said.

Speaking during a visit to Iran on Thursday, Abadi said he would accept nothing less than a full cancellation of the Kurdish referendum. The vote sparked the ongoing crisis, in which Iraqi forces entered disputed areas for the first time since 2014. Some of the areas Iraqi troops move into have been under Kurdish control since 2003.

Kurdish leaders on Wednesday offered to “suspend” the referendum results in exchange for halting the advance of Iraqi forces.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, Abadi reiterated that the Iraqi government‘s assertion of control over disputed areas includes all borders.

“Borders should be managed by the federal state,” he said. “It is the sole authority of the Iraqi and federal government to do this, and we intend to complete this task.”

The Kurdish region’s security council issued an urgent call on Wednesday for the intervention of the US-led coalition to end the Iraqi government’s “unprovoked” assault, disputing Baghdad’s claims that the movements were coordinated with the Kurdish authorities.

“Baghdad should withdraw all forces from neighboring areas and accept the KRG’s offer of unconditional talks to settle political differences,” the council said in a statement, referring to the Kurdish regional government.

Ammar al-Jazairi, spokesman for the Emergency Response Division (ERD), an elite SWAT unit of the Iraqi Federal Police, said pro-Baghdad forces had not been ordered to fire on the peshmerga fighters and moved slowly towards the Fishkhabour area to avoid clashes.

“We are waiting for them to step down,” he said. “We are a major force, but we want to take it peacefully because they are still Iraqis. Therefore, we wait for them to retreat, but if they insist on fighting, we will have no choice and will take it by force.

Jazairi said peshmerga forces tried to halt the advance using mortars and rockets, killing at least seven members of the ERD and federal police late Thursday morning. Kurds,
in turn, claim they destroyed three tanks, five American-made Humvees and one armored personnel carrier.

Jazairi said the pro-Baghdad force is made up of the ERD, federal police and allied Shia militias, which operate under the command of the central government. The militias, known as popular mobilization units, worry both the Kurds and the United States, which considers them closer to Tehran than to Baghdad.

In one of the contradictions of US regional policy, the US is fighting on the same side as Iran-backed militias in Iraq, but on the opposite side in Syria, where it has clashed with some of the same groups.

If Fishkhabour fell to these militias, it would be a “crucial blow” to US Syria policy, said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Heras said it could jeopardize US operations against Islamic State in Syria and plans to stabilize Raqqa.

“Fishkhabour is more than just a border gate: it’s the critical gate for long-term American influence in Syria. And Iran wants to close that gate,” he said.

The battle for the Fishkhabour crossing also risks disrupting an already long aid operation for displaced Syrians. More than 270,000 people have fled Raqqa and filled makeshift camps in northeast Syria since June, when the US-backed offensive to seize the city began. Aid officials said on Thursday that these camps are heavily dependent on supplies passing through Fishkhabour.

The fight between the central government and the Kurds has almost eclipsed the rest of Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State, which has been the main fear of the United States.

With little fanfare, Iraqi forces launched an offensive in the southwest on Thursday to drive out Islamic State militants from their last stronghold in the country. Iraqi forces have started moving towards Qaim, a town that borders Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria. The US military suspects that the border area between Iraq and Syria is the hideout of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sly reported from Beirut. Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.

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