Iraqi military positioned to stake claim over Kurdish stronghold Kirkuk

By Ed Adamczyk and Eric DuVall  |  Oct. 13, 2017 at 1:40 PM
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Oct. 13 (UPI) -- An elite unit of the Iraqi military on Friday took control of a military base outside Kirkuk, a site that had been under control of Kurdish forces for several years.

The Iraqi military's Emergency Response Division moved into Taza, a district about 10 miles south of Kirkuk early Friday, seizing control of a military base. Kurdish forces provided no resistance.

The move came after the Iraqi military issued threats and a demand that Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers withdraw from areas around the city of Kirkuk, a Kurdish commander said.

Previously, the two groups had formed an alliance in a bid to stamp out the Islamic State, which had taken control of wide swaths of the country. With their common military goals largely achieved, Kurds and Iraq's central government are beginning to eye control of the recently liberated territory.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003, Kurds, the third largest ethnic group in the country, have enjoyed a measure of autonomy over the northern portion of Iraq, including its oil revenue.

Last month, Kurds held a contentious referendum calling for the creation of an independent Kurdish state in what is presently northern Iraq, a move that was condemned by several nations in the region and the United States.

In the wake of that referendum, which passed overwhelmingly, the Iraqi government has authorized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to retake control over areas in northern Iraq that the Kurds have administered since 2014.

Peshmerga senior commander Shiekh Jaafar said on Thursday after a meeting of high-ranking Kurdish leaders that Iraqi military leaders ordered them to withdraw from the city. He added that the Iraqis, which include the Hashd al-Shaabi, an group of militias allied with the Iraqi government against Islamic State forces, are preparing to make advances into Kurdish-controlled areas that include oil wells and Kirkuk's airport.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is taking the demands so seriously that Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani issued a statement Friday asking the United Nations, the United States and others to "urgently intervene to prevent a new war in the region."

The Iraqis, Jaafar said, ordered the Peshmerga to return to area behind the Green Line, an informal border that separated Kurdish and Iraqi forces prior to the involvement of the United States in 2003.

Kurdistan's Security Council said on Friday that Peshmerga forces must be "in [the] highest state of readiness to defend people and land of Kurdistan and retaliate against all threats [and] attacks."

It added that Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces were preparing to attack Kurdistani positions with "tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars."

The tension between the Iraqi troops and those of Kurdish-controlled Iraq began after Kurdistani voters overwhelmingly chose to support the region's independence from Iraq in a Sept. 25 referendum.

"All standing issues should be dealt with though negotiations and peaceful means," Barzani said. "Our calls for dialogue and negotiations must not be answered with threats, amassing forces and preparations for war."

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