Iraqi forces demand the withdrawal of Kurdish troops from the Kirkuk region

Iraqi forces have demanded that Kurdish troops withdraw from oil fields and military bases around the disputed city of Kirkuk, Kurdish officials and a senior militia figure said on Friday, prompting a tense standoff around the town.

Kurdish peshmerga soldiers gathered to protect Kirkuk on Thursday night as Interior Ministry troops and Shiite militias mobilized nearby. Voluntary and retired fighters reinforce the lines. Several positions were, however, taken over by Iraqi forces, with Kurdish officers saying they had been ordered to withdraw.

The Kirkuk region, with around 10% of Iraq’s oil reserves, has long been contested by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in Erbil, but the province has become even more of a hot spot since the region of Kurdistan voted for independence in a referendum last month.

At the center of the military conflagration are areas that forces loyal to Baghdad occupied before the advance of the Islamic State in 2014, but lost when Iraqi forces collapsed en masse in northern Iraq. Iraq.

Kurdistan regards Kirkuk – ethnically and religiously mixed and home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians, Sunnis and Shiites – as a historically Kurdish city where the demographics have been altered by a campaign of “Arabization” under former Iraqi dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein. Baghdad disputes this claim.

Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have deteriorated in recent weeks after the semi-autonomous government in the north defied vehement opposition from Baghdad, as well as that of the United States and neighboring Kurdistan, to stage the independence vote. . Baghdad blocked international flights to Erbil in retaliation and threatened to take control of border crossings.

“I call on our peshmerga brothers to cede these areas and not drag the country into an internal war,” said militia commander Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iran-backed Badr Organization. He said Iraq demands that oil fields and military bases be returned.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took to Twitter on Friday to dismiss reports that Iraqi forces were planning to attack Kurdistan as “fake news” with a “deplorable agenda”. Other commanders said the movements of Iraqi forces were linked to securing the nearby town of Hawijah, which was recently retaken from Islamic State militants.

But the country’s interior minister, Qasim al-Araji, said there was a “redeployment process” underway that would see Iraqi forces return to the positions they held in the area before the advance of the Islamic State in 2014, when the Iraqi army crumbled into large areas in the north of the country.

Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk province, said Baghdad had demanded that the peshmerga withdraw from the K-1 military base and the oil fields run by the North Oil Co. “They gave us an ultimatum,” said he declared. “There have been troop movements of Shiite militias. Some of them were disguised as federal police; they were with elements of the army. They headed for our vital infrastructure, our power plants, our gas and oil fields.

Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, said Araji’s statement could be seen by Kurdish authorities as a “statement of intent” designed to signal to allied Shiite militias that they should proceed with a military build-up to reclaim land formerly held by the Iraqis. forces. “I think Kurds read tea leaves correctly,” Kagan said.

The fact that the demands were made by militia leaders and the Interior Ministry – which is run by the Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s strongest militias – has raised questions about the measure in which they operated under the control of the central government.

Irsan Shukur, a local council member from Taza, south of the city of Kirkuk, said the council mediated between peshmerga, federal police and Iraqi Emergency Response Division troops when they entered the area on Thursday evening. Peshmerga commanders agreed to retreat and left “without firing a single bullet”, he said, with Iraqi troops saying they needed to take control to secure Hawijah, recently recaptured from Islamic State.

“Two regiments refused to retreat, and currently we are negotiating with them to retreat,” Shukur said. “The good thing is that all parties have agreed that there is no need to use violence.”

Karim, the governor, denied that any peshmerga withdrew, but said there had been natural redeployments due to the changing security situation.

A Peshmerga officer from southwest Kirkuk said his unit withdrew Thursday evening to another bank of a local river. He said he was ordered to stand down but didn’t know why.

The unit belonged to the Kurdistan Patriotic Union political faction, rather than the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. The PUK calls for dialogue with Baghdad.

“Not all Kurds are the same,” said Amiri of the Badr Organization. “There are those who cooperate and those who refuse to retreat and want war.”

Footage shared on social media by members of the Emergency Response Division shows fighters lowering a Kurdish flag from a peshmerga position near the town.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani called on the international community and Iraqi Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to intervene and support the peshmerga to prevent the city from becoming “another Mosul”.

“We are surprised by the position of the Iraqi army,” he said. “Everyone remembers how the Iraqi army fled from Kirkuk and the surrounding towns.”

Aaso Ameen Schwan in Irbil and Tamer El-Ghobashy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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