Baghdad has deployed its military and pro-government militias to secure Kurdish Peshmerga-controlled bases and federal installations near Kirkuk, urging them to “avoid confrontations” and “protect all civilians” in the multi-ethnic, oil-rich region.
Early Monday morning, Iraqi government troops supported by the People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-loyal umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias, have started advancing towards Peshmerga (military force of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan) frontlines from Taza, just south of the city of Kirkuk.
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The troops were ordered to “impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with Kurdish Peshmerga,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on live television. Under the orders, the army should “secure bases [and] federal installations in Kirkuk province.” The troops were also advised “to cooperate with Peshmerga and avoid confrontations, and to protect all civilians.”
Iraqi state TV reported that Counter-Terrorism Service, the federal government and the 9th division of the Iraqi Army, have already secured “large areas” without any resistance from the Kurdish command.
Kurdish news channel, Rudaw, however, reports that clashes between Kurdish and government-led forces have erupted on the Taza Khurmatu front.
Iraqi security sources told Reuters that gunfire was heard in Kirkuk while the Peshmerga were urging the locals to resist. Kurdish sources meanwhile told the agency that clashes took place in the industrial zone of Kirkuk, while an artillery exchange took place south of the city.
As tensions rise the US Department of Defense urged “all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions.”
Earlier, the Kurdistan Security Council stated that Baghdad is trying to secure the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and the oilfields which are under the control of the Kurdish fighters.
Earlier Baghdad and the command of PMF issued a list of demands calling on Peshmerga forces to leave a number of positions south and west of Kirkuk so that those outposts can be transferred under the control of Baghdad. The Kurds were reportedly given a deadline of 2am to comply with the ultimatum, Rudaw News reported.
The Kurdish leadership said on Saturday that they would not comply and leave all of the outposts mentioned in a list of demands, provincial Governor Najmaldin Karim told reporters.
“The places that they have demanded, as mentioned in those points, have so far all been rejected,” Karim was quoted as saying by Rudaw.
However, ahead of the deadline Kurdish forces have voluntarily left Bashir and Taza, but remained at Kirkuk airport and K-1 military base, which are now the primary targets for Baghdad.
According to Peshmerga commander who spoke with Rudaw news, Kirkuk now has around 9,000 Kurdish troops that can be used to defend the city.
Tensions between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish government have been tense in the wake of Kurdistan’s independence referendum late last month where some 92.7 percent of voters chose to leave Iraq.
Baghdad immediately denounced the move as “unconstitutional.” Turkey, Iran and Syria also expressed their opposition to the creation of an independent Kurdistan over concerns that it may spur separatist sentiment in their own Kurdish-populated areas.
Ahead of the launch of the military operation, the Iraqi government accused Kurdish authorities of harboring Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Kirkuk, calling it “a declaration of war against other Iraqis and legal security forces.”
Addressing the issue of the alleged presence of PKK in Kirkuk, Iraqi National Security Council warned of a “dangerous escalation” in the region.
“The central government and regular forces will carry out their duty of defending the Iraqi people in all its components, including the Kurds, and of defending Iraq’s sovereignty and unity,” the council said a statement as quoted by Al Jazeera reports.
The Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry quickly dismissed the allegations. Kurdish leaders also rejected a call by Baghdad to cancel the results of the September 25 independence vote.
“The outcome of the referendum will not be nullified,” the Kurdish region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said after consulting Kurdistan’s two main political parties. “Talk of canceling these results is out of the question and will not address the problems.”