The formation of a new military headquarters covering disputed territory in northern Iraq has sent already-poor relations between Baghdad and its autonomous Kurdish region plummeting. The new Tigris Operations Command, based in Kirkuk city and covering all of the province of the same name as well as neighboring Salaheddin and Diyala, has drawn an angry response from Kurdish leaders who want to incorporate much of the area into their autonomous region.
The latest dispute strikes at the heart of an unresolved row between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Arbil over territory, oil and the interpretation of Iraq’s federal constitution.
“The formation of the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command in Kirkuk and Diyala is an unconstitutional step by the Iraqi government,” Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani, an opponent of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, said in recent remarks.
“The intentions, aims, formation and actions of this command center are against the Kurdish people, the political process, co-existence and the process of normalizing the situation in the disputed areas.” Al-Maliki responded by warning Kurdish peshmerga forces to “avoid provoking” Iraqi security forces.
“We call on peshmerga forces not to carry out any acts that arouse tensions and instability in those areas, and we advise them to stay away from government forces,” said the statement, attributed to Al-Maliki and referring to his position as commander in chief of Iraq’s armed forces. Kurdish leaders want to the expand their autonomous region across a swathe of territory that stretches from Iraq’s eastern border with Iran to its western frontier with Syria, against the strong opposition of Al-Maliki’s government. The unresolved row poses the biggest threat to Iraq’s long-term stability, diplomats and officials say.
The central and regional governments are also embroiled in disputes over energy contracts awarded by Kurdistan that Baghdad regards as illegal, and a variety of other rows.
The Tigris Operations Command was set up on Sept. 1 with its head Lieutenant General Abdulamir Al-Zaidi saying it was intended to address poor security coordination in the area that had allowed several violent attacks to occur. Zaidi, also head of the army’s 12th division, which covers Kirkuk and parts of Salaheddin, insisted to AFP that his forces were not entering Kirkuk city, an ethnic tinderbox of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen that is secured by the local police force.