Iraqi militia spokesman says Kurdish leader ‘worse’ than IS

BAGHDAD (AP) — The spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias on Thursday called the Kurdish leader behind last month’s independence vote “worse” than the Islamic State group, but said that the militias had no immediate intention of taking military action.

Karim al-Nouri, spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, accused the Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, of behaving like the leader of a fifth column during the war against IS.

Barzani “is more dangerous than Daesh because he comes from inside Iraq”, al-Nuri said, using the Arabic term for IS.

Last month’s non-binding referendum, in which more than 90% voted for independence, heightened long-running tensions between the Kurdish autonomous region and the central government over the sharing of oil wealth and the fate of disputed territories like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, held by Kurdish forces but located outside their autonomous zone.

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The PMF consists mainly of Shiite Arab militias, many of which are backed by neighboring Iran. Iraq, Iran and neighboring Turkey have all rejected the referendum and insist that Iraq’s borders will not be redrawn.

Al-Nuri accused Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga of “occupying” the ethnically mixed Kirkuk and “stealing the oil wells”. The peshmerga took control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group swept through northern Iraq and the Iraqi army crumbled.

“Anyone who occupies Iraqi land must be expelled. We do not discriminate against Daesh and anyone else in this way,” al-Nouri told The Associated Press.

He said the militias had no immediate plans to move into the city and would follow orders from Baghdad. But other commanders suggested clashes were on the horizon.

“I think Kirkuk will remain Iraqi, and there will be a major sacrifice to take back Kirkuk, after the approval of the Iraqi government,” said Rayan al-Kaldani, commander of the Babylon Movement, a Christian militia of the PMF.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ruled out any military action in response to the referendum, but also said he would deploy Iraqi forces in response to any violence.

Vice President Ayad Allawi warned on Monday that there could be a “civil war” in the city if both sides did not show restraint.

The peshmerga closed roads to Kirkuk early Thursday after Kurdish authorities warned that Baghdad was moving forces towards the city. They reopened them later that day.

A senior member of a Kurdish opposition party on Thursday evening proposed dissolving the Kurdish administration of Kirkuk and starting “unconditional negotiations” with Baghdad over the city. The governor of Kirkuk belongs to the party known as the PUK.

Befal Talabani, son of late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said he wanted to avoid war with Iraq’s central government. Talabani’s PUK is a big rival to Barzani’s KDP party and has good relations with Iran.

Brig. General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for Iraq’s central military command, said there were no unusual troop movements near Kirkuk. He said the army was redeploying towards the western province of Anbar, the last stronghold of IS militants in Iraq.

PMF militia forces are no more than 60 kilometers (40 miles) east and south of Kirkuk, according to al-Nuri.

In comments to a Kurdish journalist on Thursday, he said: “If a little boy is playing with a match next to a tank of gasoline, and the gasoline explodes, is it the gasoline’s fault? ?

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