“We have reached a dead end. This means we are going to fight,” a senior federal military officer told Arab News.
“The Kurds insist on pushing us to use force as they keep rejecting all constitutional and legal solutions, and want to impose reality by force. OK, we are ready.”
Iraqi troops in southern and western Kirkuk are likely to raid the city and its suburbs in the early hours of Monday, and await orders from their commander-in-chief, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, military sources told Arab News.
“As part of the federal security forces, we are in full readiness to implement the orders issued by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces,” said Ahmed Assadi, spokesman for Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Unit). “We are soldiers; we will carry out the orders issued by him without discussion.”
Earlier, Baghdad said the presence in Kirkuk of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the outlawed Turkish militant group, was “a serious escalation that cannot be tolerated” and “represents a declaration of war.” The Kurdish peshmerga ministry in Irbil denied that any PKK fighters were in Kirkuk.
The crisis erupted last month when Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum condemned by Baghdad as illegal and unconstitutional.
The federal government banned international flights into and out of the Kurdistan Region, halted financial transactions, ordered repairs to the crucial oil pipeline linking Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey to bypass Kurdistan, and asked Turkey and Iran to stop all trade with the region and shut down land border crossings. Iran closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday.
Kurdish forces have controlled Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields since June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled in the face of an onslaught by Daesh militants on nearby cities and towns. On Friday, Baghdad gave the Kurds 48 hours to withdraw.
A meeting in Irbil on Sunday between the Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is Kurdish, the Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barazani and leaders of the two biggest Kurdish political parties, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), failed to resolve the military standoff in Kirkuk.
Kurdish leaders who took part in the meeting said they rejected Baghdad’s demand that the referendum be annulled as a condition for talks. They insisted on unconditional negotiations under international supervision, and said military threats from Baghdad were unconstitutional.
Federal sources contacted by Arab News said high-level political and security meetings were taking place in Baghdad to discuss the next step.
Control of Kirkuk is vital for the Iraqi Kurds; after Basra, it has the second-largest oil fields in Iraq and is the backbone of the economy of the planned Kurdish state.
“We will not withdraw from one inch of this land for any reason and we are ready,” Kamal Kirkuki, a senior Kurdish leader and the commander of the Kurdish troops in western Kirkuk, told Arab News.
The federal government, he said was “not able to protect the people in the province and its facilities in the face of any future danger. We will not give up and will not allow them to return to our lands … this is out of the question.”