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Kurds boost troop presence as Baghdad eyes Kirkuk

Kurdish authorities have upped their troop presence in the oil-rich region around Kirkuk. Iraqi PM al-Abadi has said he has no plans to attack the territory, but Baghdad wants to nip any independence drive in the bud.

Some 6,000 extra troops have arrived in the region since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president of the autonomous Kurdistan region, said on Friday.

They join tens of thousands of Kurdish peshmerga soldiers already stationed in and around Kirkuk, Rasul said.

"They will resist an Iraqi offensive at any cost," he said, before calling for international intervention with the federal government in Baghdad to prevent the situation deteriorating.

The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga have been allies in the US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group.

Iraqi forces and Shiite Muslim paramilitaries - known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) - were deployed south and west of Kirkuk, after having recaptured the areas from IS.

An Iraqi military spokesman said recent Iraqi military movements near Kirkuk were meant to "inspect and secure" the nearby region of Hawija, which was recaptured from IS last week.

Baghdad's tough stance towards the Kurds is supported by neighbors Turkey and Iran, both of which have large Kurdish minorities and oppose any Kurdish secessionist movements.

President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said on Thursday that Turkey would gradually close border crossings with northern Iraq in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran.

Tensions are high in the region after Kurds voted in favor of independence in a referendum.

Iraq's Kurdistan region president Massud Barzani (C), Kirkuk Governor Najim al-Din Karim (R) and Kosrat Rasoul Ali

Iraq's Kurdistan region president Massud Barzani (C), Kirkuk Governor Najim al-Din Karim (R) and Kosrat Rasoul Ali

Peshmerga ready to fight

The peshmerga's Kirkuk commander, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, said his forces had withdrawn from areas they had entered during their fight against IS in the west of the province last week. Drawing back the fighters calmed some nerves about the possibility of a firefight between peshmerga and nearby Iraqi forces, but Mustafa said his troops would defend themselves if needed.

"We withdrew to our lines in the area around Kirkuk and we will defend the city in the event of an attack," he told a news conference. "If the Iraqi army advances, we will fight."

Kurdish media reported that the peshmerga had withdrawn from around 72 square kilometer (28 square miles) of territory.

A member of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion casts her vote in the Kurdish independence referendum in Arbil

A member of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion casts her vote in the Kurdish independence referendum in Arbil

Baghdad's intentions unclear

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly said he has no plans to attack the territory, although the Kurdish Regional Government Security Council said late Thursday there had been a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk, "including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars."

"These forces are approximately 3 kilometers from peshmerga forces. Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oil fields, airport and military base," it said in a statement.

Baghdad has sought to isolate the region since the September 25 referendum, including banning international flights and pushing for a halt to crude oil sales.

IS on the run

IS overran a third of Iraq in 2014. At the time, peshmerga fighters were among the only groups to stand their ground against and eventually repel the IS militants. More recently IS has been driven back by a series of Iraqi military offensives with US support. The area around al-Qaim, near the Syrian border, is the last part of Iraq still under IS control.

Kirkuk lies just beyond the KRG's autonomous territory and peshmerga forces moved in when the Iraqi army collapsed after an IS onslaught in 2014. This stopped the region's oil fields from falling under jihadi control.

The Kurds export an average of 600,000 barrels of oil per day under their own auspices, of which 250,000 bpd come from the three fields they control in Kirkuk province.

Watch video 03:13

Tensions over Kirkuk - Campbell MacDiarmid reports from Irbil

jbh/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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