Iraq troops in armed standoff with Kurd forces

Iraq troops in armed standoff with Kurd forces
Iraqi forces pose with a natinoal flag as they stand on a river bank across Kurdish peshmerga positions on October 14, 2017, on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk. (AFP)
Updated 14 October 2017

Iraq troops in armed standoff with Kurd forces

Iraq troops in armed standoff with Kurd forces

MARYAM BEIK, Iraq: Thousands of Iraqi troops were locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk on Saturday as Washington scrambled to avert fighting between the key allies in the war against the Islamic State group.
Armored cars of the Iraqi Army bearing the national flag were posted on the bank of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk, an AFP photographer reported.
On the opposite bank, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were visible behind an earthen embankment topped with concrete blocks painted with the red, white green and yellow of the Kurdish flag.
“Our forces are not moving and are now waiting for orders from the general staff,” an Iraqi Army officer told AFP, asking not to be identified.
The two sides have been at loggerheads since the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a Sept. 25 referendum that Baghdad rejected as illegal. Polling was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has said there can be no further discussion of the Kurds’ longstanding demands to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas in their autonomous region until the independence vote is annulled.
He insisted on Thursday that he was “not going... to make war on our Kurdish citizens.”
But thousands of heavily armed troops and members of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) have massed around Kirkuk.
They have already retaken a string of positions to the south of the city after Kurdish forces withdrew.
The Kurds have deployed thousands of Peshmerga fighters to the area around Kirkuk itself and have vowed to defend the city “at any cost.”
So far the front lines have been quiet but the Kurds said they had received an ultimatum to withdraw.
Washington has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that it was working to reduce tensions.
“We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy, and at the same time recognizing that we have got to find a way to move forward,” Mattis told reporters.
“Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS (Daesh). We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want to go to a shooting situation,” he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.
Last week, the Iraqi Army retook the Sunni Arab insurgent bastion of Hawija, the last town in Kirkuk province in Daesh hands, but there has been fighting in the countryside since.
The tensions between the Kurds and the Shiite militias in Kirkuk have spilled over into sporadic violence elsewhere in Iraq. In the mainly Shiite Turkmen town of Tuz Khurmatu in neighboring Salaheddin province, three PMF paramilitaries and two Kurdish Peshmerga were wounded in a firefight overnight, Town Council spokesman Shalal Abdul said.
In the mainly Shiite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, the offices of a Kurdish-owned mobile phone company were firebombed and three of its staff briefly abducted, police said.