BAGHDAD,— Iraqi government forces and Iranian-trained Iraqi paramilitaries are “preparing a major attack” on Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-held oil-rich region of Kirkuk and near Mosul in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said on Wednesday.
But an Iraqi military spokesman denied any attack on Kurdish forces was planned and said that government troops were instead preparing to oust Islamic State militants from a border area with Syria in the west of Iraq.
Tensions between the KRG and the Iraqi government have been running especially high since the Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence in a referendum last month.
The Kurdish-held multi-ethnic region of Kirkuk has emerged as a flashpoint in the crisis as it is claimed by both sides.
Iraqi forces and Shi‘ite paramilitaries, known as Popular Mobilisation, are deployed south and west of Kirkuk, in areas previously under the control of Islamic State.
“We’re receiving dangerous messages that Iraqi forces, including Popular Mobilisation and Federal Police, are preparing a major attack ..
on Kurdistan,” said the KRG’s Security Council in a tweet confirmed by a Kurdish official.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Oct 5 that his government wanted to avoid clashes with the Kurds, but Popular Mobilisation leaders have repeatedly threatened to oust Kurdish forces from Kirkuk.
The oil rich Kirkuk city in Iraq’s north is claimed by both Iraq’s central government and the country’s Kurdish region.
The Kurds are seeking to integrate Kirkuk province into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region claiming it to be historically a Kurdish city, but Iraq’s central government opposes this.
The population is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Turkmen.
The Arabs and Turkmen do not want to see the province under permanent Kurdish control.
Kurdish forces take full control of Kirkuk after the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq in 2014 and the withdrawal of Iraqi army form the province and some other northern region of the state, including second-biggest city of Mosul.
Tensions escalated between Iraq’s Kurds and Baghdad on Thursday as warnings of a “major attack” by government forces prompted Kurdish peshmerga fighters to temporarily block roads from other parts of the country.
The move came just over two weeks after Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum the central government slammed as illegal.
Iraqi Kurdish forces closed the two main roads connecting Erbil and Dohuk with Mosul for several hours, a Kurdish military official said.
“The closure was prompted by fears of a possible attack by Iraqi forces on the disputed areas,” held by Kurdish forces but outside the autonomous Kurdish region, the official said.
Kurdish authorities said late Wednesday they feared Iraqi government forces and allied paramilitary units were gearing up to launch an assault on the autonomous northern region.
“We’re receiving dangerous messages that the Hashed al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) and federal police are preparing a major attack from the southwest of Kirkuk and north of Mosul against Kurdistan,” the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Council said.
But in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is disputed between the Kurds and Baghdad, a local commander told AFP there were no immediate signs of movement by Iraqi forces.
“We have seen no unacceptable movement on the part of Iraqi forces,” Wasta Rasul, the commander of peshmerga forces in southern Kirkuk, told AFP.
He said the peshmerga were in meetings with the US-led coalition that has intervened in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State group and that coalition aircraft “are monitoring the situation carefully”.
The coalition has worked with both peshmerga and Iraqi pro-government forces in the battle to oust IS from areas it seized in Iraq in mid-2014.
Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil have spiralled since last month’s Kurdish independence poll.
Security sources said Thursday that Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service and Rapid Response Force had deployed more forces near Rashad, a village some 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Kirkuk, near peshmerga positions.
The spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command refused to confirm or deny any preparations for an offensive against Kurdish forces, pointing instead to operations following last week’s retaking of the town of Hawija from IS.
“What I can say is that our forces in Hawija have accomplished their duty and have started to clear the region of explosives and restore the law in order to allow people to go home,” said the spokesman, Brigadier General Yahiya Rassul.
Central authorities have severed ties between the Kurdish autonomous region and the outside world by cutting international air links.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which fear that Iraqi Kurdish moves towards independence could fuel demands from their own sizeable Kurdish communities, have also threatened to close their borders to oil exports.
An Iraqi court on Wednesday ordered the arrest of senior Kurdish officials responsible for organising the referendum, saying they had done so “in contravention of a ruling by the Iraqi supreme court”.
The warrant is likely to prove toothless as Baghdad’s security forces do not operate inside Kurdistan, but it could stop the officials leaving the region.
Iraq has also launched a probe into Kurdistan’s lucrative oil revenues and pledged to expose “corrupt” officials in the region who might have illegally monopolised the market.
TARGETING ISLAMIC STATE
An Iraqi military spokesman denied the KRG claim.
“We are getting ready for the battle in al-Qaim, we’re not concerned by confrontations other than with Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The area around the border post of al-Qaim, in western Iraq, is the last Iraqi region still under the control of the militants who overran a third of the country in 2014.
Offensives are being prepared south and west of Kirkuk and north of Mosul, said the KRG’s security council.
Iraqi forces captured Mosul from Islamic State in July, after a grueling nine-month U.S.-backed offensive with the participation of Kurdish Peshmerga.
Kurdish forces are deployed north of the city, in an area also claimed by Baghdad.
Abadi’s government, seeking to keep the country together, has taken measures to isolate the KRG, including a ban on direct international flights to the region.
Neighboring Iran and Turkey back Baghdad’s stance, fearing the spread of separatism to their own Kurdish populations.
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