First Published: 2017-10-15

Iraqi forces in standoff with Kurds in oil-rich Kirkuk
Washington scrambles to prevent fighting between its allies as Iraqi forces use loudhailers calling on peshmerga fighters to withdraw.
Middle East Online

"Our forces are not moving and are now waiting for orders from the general staff," an Iraqi army officer said

MARYAM BEIK - The presidents of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan held talks Sunday to defuse an escalating crisis, after a deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed positions was extended by 24 hours.

Thousands of Iraqi troops are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, amid spiralling tensions following last month's vote by the Iraqi Kurds for independence.

The crisis is raising fears of fresh chaos in Iraq just as the country's forces are on the verge of routing the Islamic State group from the last territory it controls in the country.

Kurdish forces, who were key allies in the US-backed offensive against IS, are refusing to surrender positions they took during the fightback against the jihadists over the past three years.

Iraq's central authorities had demanded the Kurds withdraw from disputed areas overnight but the deadline was extended by a day following talks.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum, himself a Kurd, was meeting Sunday with Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani in Dukan in Sulaimaniyah province, officials said.

The peshmerga forces based in Kirkuk are mainly loyal to Masum's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of party, a rival of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Representatives of both parties were taking part in the talks.

The Iraqi president was to submit a plan based on "dialogue and negotiation to avoid conflict and violence," Abdallah Aliwai, an adviser to Masum at the talks, said refusing to give more details.

Iraqi and peshmerga forces could be seen early on Sunday still facing off in positions on the outskirts of Kirkuk, though there were no signs of troop movements.

- Armed civilians in Kirkuk -

As well as heavily armed federal troops, members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, have massed around Kirkuk.

Armed Kurdish civilians were seen gathering in Kirkuk overnight and Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim, a Kurd sacked by Baghdad but who refuses to quit his post, warned: "Residents will help the peshmerga... we will not allow any force to enter our city."

Kirkuk, long claimed by the Kurds as part of their historic territory, has emerged as the main flashpoint in the dispute.

Polling during the September 25 referendum was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk, that are claimed by both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The referendum, which was non-binding and saw voters overwhelmingly back independence, was declared illegal by Baghdad and held despite international opposition.

The Kurds control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province.

The three fields produce some 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for 40 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports.

They would provide crucial revenue to Baghdad, which has been left cash-strapped from the global fall in oil prices and three years of battle against IS.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this week that he was "not going... to make war on our Kurdish citizens" but has also rejected any negotiations until the independence vote is annulled.

- US urges calm -

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said that Iraqi government forces "do not want to... harm citizens, be they Kurdish or otherwise, but they must enforce the constitution," which gives Baghdad control in the disputed areas and over exports.

Washington has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the United States was working to reduce tensions.

"We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy," Mattis told reporters.

"Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can't turn on each other right now," he said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

After ousting the jihadists from their last urban areas including Mosul and Hawija in recent months, Iraqi forces are battling to push IS from its last positions along the border with Syria.

Tensions have also risen between the Kurds and Ankara and Tehran since the independence vote, which both countries fear will stoke the separatist ambitions of their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.

On Sunday, Tehran denied a claim from a Kurdish official that Iran had followed through on threats to close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said "no new decision" had been made and that "the land border is open with Iraqi Kurdistan".

A Kurdish customs official, Shakhwan Abu Bakr, earlier said that the border had been closed to all people and goods at the three crossings into Iran.

 

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Morocco bans bitcoin transactions

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home

Rebels say Sanaa airport 'ready to run' after coalition bombing

Greece to amend historic sharia law for Muslim minority

Turkey to ask Germany to extradite top coup suspect

Car bomb in northern Iraq kills at least 24

13 million Syrians need aid despite relative drop in violence

Sudan urged to improve plight of Darfur's displaced people

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks

Turkish opposition daily web editor sentenced to 3 years in jail

Israeli police arrest 33 in ultra-Orthodox draft riots

Turkish lira at new low against US dollar

Islamic republic declares end of Islamic State

Assad in Russia for talks with Putin

UN chief horrified by Libya slave auctions

Qatar 2022 chief has no regrets over hosting World Cup

Gheit says Lebanon should be 'spared' from regional tensions

Saudi Arabia, Arab allies push for unity against Iran, Hezbollah meddling

Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ does nothing to stop civilian deaths

Is a demilitarised Palestinian state a viable option?

S&P affirms good Saudi credit ratings

Israel president faces big backlash over Palestinian scarf

Sudan leader to visit Russia Thursday

Seven years into Libya’s civil war, the chaos continues