Iraqi Army: No intention to enter Kurdistan

An Iraqi Kurdish woman raises a sign during a demonstration on Saturday outside the UN Office in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2017
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Iraqi Army: No intention to enter Kurdistan

BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces backed by Shiite paramilitaries have seized almost all disputed areas from Kurdish fighters, but have no intention to enter the Kurdish region itself, Iraqi military officers told Arab News on Saturday.
Baghdad launched a military operation last week to drive Kurdish forces out of the northern city of Kirkuk, its lucrative oilfields and all disputed areas next to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Major clashes erupted on Friday when federal troops advanced to retake Alton Kobrai town, the last disputed territory, 40 km northwest of Kirkuk.
Kurdish forces attacked the advancing troops with mortars, rockets and grenades, killing several soldiers and Shiite fighters, military sources said.
“The military operation is almost complete. Small villages and towns in the area are still out of our control,” Ahmed Assadi, spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), told Arab News.
“The operation will end as soon as the troops completely reach the Blue Line (the 2003 agreed border of Iraqi Kurdistan), and we have no orders or intention to cross this line.”
Around 120,000 people have fled Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatoo in the last five days due to the military operation, Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement said on Saturday.
In 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took advantage of the Iraqi Army’s weakness in the face of lightning advances by Daesh to seize territory beyond the Blue Line.
The military operation was launched in response to a controversial referendum held last month by the KRG, in which 92 percent of Kurds voted for independence from Iraq.
Baghdad has demanded the cancelation of the result, and the handover of disputed areas, as preconditions for talks “under the umbrella of the constitution.”
Iraqi presidential adviser Sherwan Al-Waieli told Arab News that KRG President Masoud Barzani cannot represent the Kurdish side in talks because “legally and constitutionally, he hasn’t been president for two years.”
Barzani’s tenure as KRG president ended in 2015, and he has been pressuring the Kurdish Parliament and political parties to extend his term.
The most influential parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran — shared power until 2014, when Barzani, who heads the KDP, limited the influence of the other two parties after they rejected his request to extend his term.
Last week, it was alleged that PUK leaders forged an agreement with Baghdad to withdraw from all disputed areas under their control without fighting. On Saturday, Gorran urged Barzani to step down to open the door for talks with Baghdad.
“The new government has to represent all the Kurdish parties, contribute to the establishment of security and stability, address economic problems and begin dialogue with Baghdad,” Masoud Haider, a senior leader of Gorran and a federal lawmaker, told Arab News.
“There’s a political and military setback in Kurdistan because of the decisions made by the KDP and PUK over the past two years, and they must bear the consequences.”
Barzani’s position as KRG president “is illegal,” said Haider.
“His term ended two years ago, so he has to step down.”


Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

Syrians prepare to leave their refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley on the eastern border with Syria. (AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018
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Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

  • A number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents
  • “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters”

BEIRUT: More than 11 days have passed since Hezbollah opened reception centers in Bekaa, a southern suburb of Beirut, and southern Lebanon where Syrian refugees can apply to return to their home country. However, the number of applicants so far has been rather small.
Many of the refugees had one simple question for the Hezbollah officials at the centers: “Will you take us to the Lebanese-Syrian border and dump us there or will you take us to our houses, which you helped destroy, inside Syria?”
Hezbollah opened the repatriation centers in response to the Iranian position, which was later confirmed by Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Iranian president’s special envoy to Beirut. He said: “One of our top priorities at this stage is the issue of Syrian refugees and ensuring their safe return to their homeland. We cannot discuss a final solution to the Syrian crisis unless refugees are back in their homeland, cities and villages.”
On July 23, about 1,200 people will return from the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, to their homes West Qalamoun.
Arsal Mayor Basil Al-Hajjiri said that the return of this group, the third batch of refugees to go home, comes within the framework of a reconciliation with the Syrian authorities, and in coordination with Lebanese General Security.
He added that it had been initiated by the refugees themselves.
“Most of those refugees do not have identification papers to travel outside Arsal and they acted before Hezbollah urged them to submit applications through the party’s centers, and prior to Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil’s call,” said Al-Hajjiri.
“They have agreed to return in light of the developments in the areas surrounding their homes. Neither Hezbollah nor minister Bassil can make them return if they were not fully convinced of their ability to go back to their homes under safe circumstances.”
A source responsible for Hezbollah’s refugee application center in Hermel said it had received telephone calls from Syrians in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon, saying it was difficult for them to get to Bekaa to register but that they want to return to their hometown of Talkalakh, having fled the fighting there.
A Hezbollah official said: “Communicating with those refugees requires certain arrangements on which we are currently working.”
But what guarantees can Hezbollah offer refugees who wish to return?
The official said: “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters.”
The Hezbollah source in Hermel confirmed that they do not provide any reassurances or guarantees to refugees about what might await them upon their return to Syria.
“We take individuals’ and families’ names and promise to secure the transportation of all their belongings, but if their houses were destroyed, we cannot promise to rebuild them,” he said. “We collect applications and submit them to the concerned committee.”
Asked how Hezbollah can reassure refugees of their safety even though the party’s fighters are still operating inside Syria in support the regime against the opposition, the Hezbollah official said: “People fought and reconciled throughout the history of mankind. A reconciliation must take place and I believe it is what refugees want.”
He fears that if the Syrian refugees remain in Lebanon, they may cause a demographic change, pointing out that each of the families that had registered at the center included at least 10 members.
Former member of Parliament Nawar Al-Sahili, who heads the committee formed by Hezbollah to oversee the return of Syrian refugees, said the number of registered families so far does not exceed 150.
“We want to send people back to safe areas, not ones that are still undergoing security developments; repatriation does not include returning to Idlib or Deir Ezzor, for instance,” he said, adding that “the applications will be handed over to the Syrian authorities to be approved.”
As for what awaits refugees who return to Al-Qusayr and its countryside, given that most of them are dissidents who took part in anti-regime demonstrations, Al-Sahili said: “We must find a solution for this issue.”
Arsal Mayor Al-Hajjiri said the information he has been given suggests the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr has been postponed by the Syrian authorities and Hezbollah.
“There is great destruction and people want guarantees that can only be provided by those controlling the territory,” he said.
Al-Hajjiri added that a number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents. He believes the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr and its countryside will require not only a reconciliation but a general amnesty.
He pointed out that the road to West Qalamoun is safe but there is a need for a diplomatic route, which remains impassable for now.