Kurds block Iraqi forces access to Kirkuk’s oil fields, air base

A Kurdish Peshmerga Fighter is seen in the Southwest of Kirkuk. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 October 2017
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Kurds block Iraqi forces access to Kirkuk’s oil fields, air base

BAGHDAD: Kurdish Peshmerga fighters rejected a warning from an Iraqi paramilitary force to withdraw from a strategic junction south of Kirkuk, which controls the access to some of the region’s main oilfields, a Kurdish security official told Reuters on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani arrived in Iraq’s Kurdistan region for talks about the escalating crisis between the Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government following last month’s Kurdish independence referendum.
Soleimani is the commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, a military corp providing training and weapons to Iraqi paramilitary groups backing the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, known as Popular Mobilization.
He arrived in the Kurdish region Saturday, a Kurdish official said.
Popular Mobilization had given the Peshmerga until midnight local time (2100 GMT Saturday) to leave a position north of the Maktab Khalid junction, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Security Council said.
Ali Al-Hussaini, a spokesman for the paramilitary groups known as Hashid Shaabi in Arabic, told Reuters the deadline had expired without giving indications about their next move.
“We are waiting for new orders, no extension is expected,” he said.
The Kurdish position north of the junction controls the access to an important air base and Bai Hassan, one of the main crude oil fields of the region, the KRG official said.
The city, the air base and their immediate surroundings, including the oilfields, are under Kurdish control.
There were no clashes reported 14 hours after the deadline, but a resident said dozens of young Kurds took up arms and were deployed in the streets of Kirkuk with machine guns as the news of the warning spread.
The KRG and the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad are at loggerheads since the Sept. 25 vote, which delivered an overwhelming yes for Kurdish independence.
Kurdish authorities said on Friday they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront Iraqi “threats.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to attack the Kurds.
Popular Mobilization is a separate force from the regular army and officially reports to Abadi. It is deployed alongside the army south and west of Kirkuk.
Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, lies just outside KRG territory but Peshmerga forces were stationed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of a Daesh onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into jihadist hands.
The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in the referendum, including banning international flights from taking off or landing there.


Turkey may work with Syria’s Assad if elected fairly

Updated 17 min 40 sec ago
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Turkey may work with Syria’s Assad if elected fairly

  • Renewed Ankara-Damascus ties will contribute to reconstruction of Syrian cities through Turkish companies, says analyst
  • Mistrust between Ankara and Damascus remains a significant hurdle to smoother diplomatic relations

ANKARA: In a potentially major policy shift, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Sunday said Ankara will consider working with Syrian President Bashar Assad if he wins a free and fair election. 

Ankara had previously called on Assad to step down following the start of the uprising against him in 2011. 

There are suggestions that the U-turn may be due to Turkey’s opposition to growing Kurdish influence on both sides of the border.

“Turkey can’t solve the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party (PYD) problem with the US alone,” said Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council. “A start of dialogue with Assad … seems like a logical step.” 

Turkey will also be driven by ambitions to install friendly political figures in the Syrian government, Akhmetov added.

“Renewed relations between Turkey and Syria will contribute to reconstruction of (Syrian) cities with Turkish companies and bilateral trade,” he said. 

A UN-led plan to draft reforms to Syria’s constitution, laying the ground for fresh elections, is expected to be established within weeks.

Under the plan, the Syrian regime will choose 50 members of the Constitutional Committee, with Turkey proposing 50 Syrian opposition members and the UN nominating a further 50 people — comprising academics, experts and civil society members — to oversee the reforms. 

Last week, Ankara said it will launch within days a military campaign east of the Euphrates River against the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), whose political wing is the PYD.

“Ankara may intend that Russia rhetorically supports such a campaign in exchange for a positive message about Assad’s theoretical chances of staying in power,” said Akhmetov. 

But mistrust between Ankara and Damascus remains a significant hurdle to smoother diplomatic relations. 

Last month, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad demanded that Turkish “occupation” forces leave the country. 

He said Damascus would not count on Turkish assurances because Ankara’s intentions are “colonial” and “expansionist.” 

Aron Lund, a Syria analyst at the Century Foundation, said he does not think Turkey’s expressed willingness to work with Assad constitutes a big change. 

“What Cavusoglu seems to be saying is that Syria should have a democratic election, as is called for in UN Security Council resolution 2254, and that the winner — even if it’s Assad — could be considered legitimate by Turkey,” he told Arab News. 

Cavusoglu simply responded to a hypothetical question, Lund said, adding: “For now, Turkey seems content to continue along the current course of action, working with Russia to secure its interests in Syria and relaying messages to Damascus through Moscow and Tehran.”

Ankara still refuses to talk directly to Damascus to seek an end to the conflict in Syria. Sinan Hatahet of Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul said Turkey’s stance is conditional upon elections in Syria.

“Previously, Turkish officials made it clear that they don’t believe that the regime would let elections happen,” he told Arab News. 

“It’s still difficult to believe there will be any reconciliation between the parties for now.”