Baghdad-Erbil dispute hits deadlock
LONDON- Fears have risen that the political dispute between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil could spiral into military clashes between forces belonging to the two sides, especially in Kirkuk.
Iraqi forces retook a number of positions in oil-rich Kirkuk from the control of peshmerga fighters but the KRG warned that any new advance would be met by force.
“If the Iraqi Army advances, we will fight,” said peshmerga’s Kirkuk commander Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa.
KRG Vice-President Kosrat Rasul said 6,000 peshmerga fighters were sent to Kirkuk as reinforcements to the tens of thousands Kurdish forces stationed in and around the city.
Hemin Hawrami, a top aide to KRG President Masoud Barzani said peshmerga fighters were ordered to defend their positions in Kirkuk “at any cost.”
There were reports that the positions handed to the Iraqi Army were in agreement with peshmerga leaders loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, the bitter rival of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the KRG.
PUK officials have been trying to defuse tensions between the KRG and central government after Barzani went ahead with a non-binding referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, despite objections of Baghdad and much of the international community.
KRG figures indicated that more than 90% of Kurds who participated voted in favour of independence but the legitimacy of the non-binding referendum was questioned by non-Kurdish Iraqis who do not want the country to break up.
“Interviews reveal that large segments among non-Kurdish minorities — Turkmen, Yazidis, Christians, Sunni Arabs and Shabak — want to live under Iraqi federal government control, opposing the corrupt patronage of the Kurdish Democratic Party [which leads the KRG],” wrote Christine McCaffray van den Toorn in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.
Peshmerga fighters sealed off main roads linking Erbil and Dohuk with the northern city of Mosul, saying they feared being attacked by Iraqi forces backed by Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias.
“We’re receiving dangerous messages that [PMF] and federal police are preparing a major attack from the south-west of Kirkuk and north of Mosul against Kurdistan,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismissed KRG reports that an attack by Iraqi forces against Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Kirkuk was imminent, stressing that the focus is on defeating Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
“Our armed forces cannot and will not attack our citizens, whether Arab or Kurd. The fake news being spread has a deplorable agenda behind it,” Abadi posted on Twitter.
There were reports of small clashes between peshmerga forces and the PMF in the town of Tuz Khurmatu in Saladin province.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis said Washington was working to reduce tensions between Baghdad and Erbil. “We have got to work on this, the secretary of state has the lead but my forces are integrated among these forces and they are working, too, to make certain we keep any potential for conflict off the table,” Mattis said.
Mattis also said there has been no fighting between Iraqi troops and peshmerga fighters in Kirkuk so far and called on the two sides to focus on defeating ISIS.
Hundreds of ISIS fighters fled Hawija and surrendered to the peshmerga to avoid being captured by Iraqi forces and the PMF but Iraqi officials warned that many had infiltrated Kirkuk and were still at large.
Baghdad has repeatedly demanded that the KRG return control of multi-ethnic Kirkuk to the central government but Kurdish officials have refused. The oil-rich city is considered the area where a clash between peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen could take place.
“Elements within [PMF] are not a disciplined group that takes orders,” Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim told the Iraq Oil Report. “Sometimes they take it upon themselves to do things… So rogue elements can start something.”
Karim was sacked by the Iraqi parliament over alleged misuse of power but he remained in his post because Baghdad could not enforce his dismissal. An Iraqi court ordered the arrest of four senior Kurdish officials for organising the referendum “in contravention of a ruling by the Iraqi supreme court.”
Baghdad is investigating the KRG’s oil revenues to root out corrupt officials, while considering repairing an oil pipeline to Turkey that would bypass KRG-controlled areas. Turkey said it would gradually close border gates with the KRG in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran.
Abadi said dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil would not include compromise on the central government’s stance towards the KRG’s independence referendum, which it branded unconstitutional.
“Any dialogue must be based on the following: Iraq’s unity, the Iraqi Constitution and rejection of the referendum results,” Abadi said. “This position does not need negotiations, initiatives nor mediations.”
In Iraq\'s north, there are fears that KRG President Masoud Barzani intends to delay the region’s presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for November 1, effectively allowing him to extend his term until 2019. Barzani became KRG president in 2005 and the last regional presidential elections were in 2009.
Shorsh Haji, spokesman of the opposition party, Gorran (Movement for Change), said there are “no excuses” for postponing the elections. A newly formed opposition movement called the New Generation List also warned against delaying the elections.
“We would like to say that we reject any step to postpone the presidential and parliamentary elections after we heard claims of postponing the elections,” read a statement from the New Generation List.
There has been no official confirmation that the elections would be postponed. Member of the Kurdistan parliament Wahid Hormozi told BasNews that Kurdish political parties were expected to soon decide on the issue.
“Though a new legislature is supposed to be elected November 1, the presidential election — and Mr Barzani’s long-promised departure from office — has been thrown into doubt by a mysterious absence of candidates,” the Washington Post said in an editorial.