Fears of a new civil war in Iraq — pitting the autonomous Kurdish region against the Iraqi central government — reached new heights Friday, with both sides engaging in tense troop movements around the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish authorities said they were sending thousands of their Peshmerga forces toward the city, while the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division claimed its own forces were sweeping into positions that the Kurds were abandoning.
The conflicting assertions came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Baghdad had no plan to attack Kurdish forces around Kirkuk, a city about 165 miles north of Baghdad that has been a focal point of tensions since the Kurds held a Sept. 25 referendum on independence.
Despite Mr. al-Abadi’s statements, Iraq’s central government has made moves to isolate the Kurdish region with a series of measures in recent weeks, including banning international flights from landing there and demanding a halt to all crude oil sales by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
KRG Vice President Kosrat Rassel said Friday that Kurdish forces were responding by beefing up their forces “in and around” Kirkuk. “Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces are already stationed [there],” Mr. Rasul said on Kurdish TV, according to Reuters. “At least 6,000 additional Peshmerga were deployed since Thursday night to face the Iraqi forces’ threat.”
At the same time, Iraqi commanders claimed Friday that Kurdish forces were actually withdrawing from positions that they had previously held southwest of Kirkuk — the city itself falls outside the autonomous zone of the KRG — and asserted that the Iraqi Army was moving quickly to secure the areas.
An officer in the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division said federal forces had moved into the positions near the village of Bashir. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity with The Associated Press, which reported that Iraqi federal forces were posting photos of themselves standing in front of barriers painted with the Kurdish flag on social media.
The postings claimed that the photos were taken “inside Kirkuk,” which is also the name of the Iraqi province that surrounds the oil-rich city. However, Iraq’s military command rushed to issue a statement denying media reports it had commenced operations to retake the city from Kurdish Peshmerga forces who have controlled it for the past three years.
The Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk when Iraqi defenses crumbled in the face of the advancing Islamic State terrorist group in 2014.
Both Iraqi military and Peshmerga forces have been operating in close proximity in northern Iraq in the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State group. U.S. coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press that military movements in the region were in line with recent operations to clear the terrorist group’s fighters from Hawija, a town roughly 40 miles west of Kirkuk.
But the KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it said was a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars,” according to Reuters.
The Kurds have repeatedly called for negotiations following the referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence.
The General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan circulated a statement Friday morning claiming that Iraqi military forces were being deployed to “attack Peshmerga-held areas, particularly in and around Kirkuk.”
“The deployment follows foreign meddling and provocation, and threatening statements by Iraqi military and political officials, citing attacks against the people of Kurdistan,” the statement said, adding that the international community “must understand that left unaddressed the situation will lead to grave consequences and disaster.”
“We are against violence and bloodshed,” it said. “We call on the Iraqi government to return to dialogue and peaceful means to settle differences instead of deploying forces and imposing its will.”