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Iraqi VP warns of ‘civil war’ over Kurdish-held Kirkuk

Iraq Vice President Vice President Ayad Allawi says there could be a “violent conflict” over the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk if talks over Kurdish independence are left unresolved. (AP)
BAGHDAD: Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi on Monday warned there could be a “civil war” over the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk if talks over Kurdish independence are left unresolved.
Allawi, in an interview with The Associated Press, urged Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, as well as Iraq’s central government and its Iranian-backed militias, to show restraint and resolve their disputes over the oil-rich city.
Ruling out a military solution to the crisis, Ihssan Al-Shimari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, told Arab News: “Talking about a civil war between Kurds and Arabs is an attempt to pressure both sides — Baghdad and Kurdistan — but the reality on the ground doesn’t indicate any of these expectations.”
Al-Shimari said: “The prime minister has flatly refused to fight Kurdish citizens and still relies on constitutional measures, which offer a wide range of options to the federal government to deal with the crisis.”
He added: “Kirkuk is a disputed area, and according to the constitution its administration has to go back to the Iraqi federal government.”
Kirkuk was included in Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum last month, even though it falls outside the autonomous Kurdish region in the country’s northeast.
The ethnically mixed city has been administered by Kurdish forces since 2014, when the Iraqi military fled a Daesh advance.
The referendum was held despite strong objections from Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran. Barzani has not yet declared independence.
“Iraqis should be left alone to discuss their own problems without interference,” said Allawi. “Kirkuk has become a flashpoint.”
The head of the Asaib Al-Haq militia, Qais Khazali, on Sunday warned that the Kurds were planning to claim much of northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, for an independent state, after they voted for independence in a controversial but non-binding referendum two weeks ago.
He said it would be tantamount to a “foreign occupation,” reported the Afaq TV channel, which is close to the state-sanctioned militia.
Allawi, a former prime minister, said any move by the country’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), which include Asaib Al-Haq, to enter Kirkuk would “damage all possibilities for unifying Iraq” and open the door to “violent conflict.”
He said if the government controls the PMUs, as it claims, it “should restrain them, rather than go into a kind of civil war.” Allawi also urged the Kurdish side “not to take aggressive measures to control these lands.”
Mohammed Naji, a lawmaker and a senior leader of Badr — one of the most prominent Iraqi Shiite militias — told Arab News: “It’s early to pick up the last option (confrontation). The federal government will use all available measures to contain the crisis, and using (military) power to impose federal authority (in Kirkuk) and preserve the unity of Iraqi lands and people will be the last option.”
Naji said: “From the beginning, we’ve said the referendum is unconstitutional. It violates the first item of the Iraqi constitution, and any action that aims to divide Iraq is unacceptable to all Iraqis.”
He added: “Resolving the problem of Kirkuk and the other disputed areas would be according to the constitution, and we can go back to talks (with the Kurds) under the umbrella of the constitution.”
He continued: “We’ve asked both parties (Baghdad and Irbil) to abide by the constitution, but if the Kurdish brothers insist on their stubbornness, this means they want to go with the hardest option, which is confrontation.”
Al-Abadi demanded that the Kurdistan Regional Government annul the referendum result, and called for joint administration of Kirkuk. Baghdad has closed Iraqi Kurdistan’s airspace to international flights.
Turkey and Iran have threatened punitive measures against the Kurdish region, fearing the encouragement of separatist sentiment among their own Kurdish populations.