US working to prevent conflict in Kirkuk
The US Departments of State and Defense are both working to prevent conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Kirkuk.
“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,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters on Friday.
He urged all parties to keep focused on the war with ISIS and not “turn on each other.”
“We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation,” he said.
European parliament group calls for dialogue instead of military buildup
The European Friends of Kurdistan in the European Parliament have issued a statement expressing concern about reports of buildup of forces around Kirkuk.
It is only through dialogue and negotiation “that the future of Iraq and its people can be peacefully resolved. Any threat of use of military action to resolve the current tensions would be of grave concern to us and harmful to the people of Iraq,” the statement read.
The group added that that they welcome Erbil’s willingness to sit down for talks with Baghdad and urged the Iraqi government to do the same.
They also note that issue of the disputed province of Kirkuk has not been resolved as was mandated by the Iraqi constitution.
Abadi, Hashd demand PUK hand over sites in Kirkuk, via message carried by President Masum
Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, has arrived in Sulaimani with a message for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Hashd al-Shaabi.
The six points Abadi and the Shiite force are demanding of the PUK are: hand over Kirkuk airport, hand over K-1 military base, hand over all oil fields, hand over all ISIS militants held by the Peshmerga, allow the return of the Iraqi army to all places where they were stationed before ISIS, remove Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim from his position.
The PUK are being given a deadline of 2 am Sunday morning to fulfill the six demands.
The Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei sent Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a message of “open support” for the tough line Abadi has taken on Erbil with regard to Kurdistan’s bid for independence, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, reported on Thursday.
It said that the message was recently delivered by the commander of the Iranian Quds force QasemSoleimani.
He praised the “exceptional performance” of the Iraqi leader resisting the Kurdistan Region’s “stubborn” stance on independence.
The message was not confined to the Kurdistan referendum, but also offered Iran’s support to Abadi in his “future political life,” a hint in anticipation of Iraqi general elections are scheduled for the first quarter of 2018.
Khamenei had earlier called the referendum an act of treason, a plot masterminded by Israel and the United States.
Rudaw cannot independently verify whether or not the Quds commander has in fact visited Iraq, nor the content of the message. There, have, however, been multiple reports of Soleimani being in Iraq.
The former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Twitter Thursday that the Quds commander is in Iraq to push the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces to attack Kirkuk.
Earlier today, the Peshmerga general command said in a statement that Iraqi forces have been preparing to attack the Peshmerga-controlled areas with “foreign encouragement and backing.” It did not provide more details.
On Friday, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani urged Iraqi forces and “any foreign force” against igniting a war between Erbil and Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has called on the international community, including the UN Security Council, to rapidly intervene to prevent a “new war” between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum.
A potential war, if caused by Iraqi forces with the support of foreign countries, will lead to “direct, grave consequences” whose impact not only will be felt in Iraq, but across the entire region, he said.
Following a meeting of the Kurdish Peshmerga commanders south of Kirkuk, Shiekh Jaafar, a senior Kurdish Peshmerga commander, told reporters that the Iraqi forces had issued “threats” Thursday night and demanded the Peshmerga to return back to the so-called Green Line that used to separate the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He said the Iraqi forces that also included the Iranian-backed mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi were among those forces who wanted to make advances into the Kurdish-controlled areas, such as some oil wells, and the Kirkuk airport.
The Iraqi forces set the Peshmerga about two hours to leave their posts south of Kirkuk, Jaafar said, something vehemently rejected by the commander of the southern Kirkuk, Wasta Rasul.
The Kurdish Peshmerga had studied and assessed the capability of the Peshmerga positions near Kirkuk about 15 days ago, the commander said, adding that they came to the conclusion that some of the positions, that were initially set for the fight against ISIS were regarded weak that cannot stand a potential military aggression by the Iraqi forces. He said therefore they decided to withdraw from some of these areas to where they believe the line of defense can be well protected with minimum loss of lives.
The abandoned positions were regarded as “failed lines” where it would have put the lives of the Peshmerga fighters unnecessarily at risk, the commander said.
He added that Kurdish Peshmerga were able to “prevent them [Iraqi forces] from implementing their plan,” that they set themselves to be carried out within hours Thursday night.
“The Peshmerga are now stationed in key positions,” Jaafar said, referring to positions and areas that they believe are vital with regard to defending the province of Kirkuk.
“We promise the people of Kirkuk, and this area, that the Peshmerga forces will be their defenders. We will fight to the last person and will not allow the enemy to enter any of these areas,” the Kurdish commander vowed, while standing next to other Peshmerga commanders.
Kurdistan’s Security Council, that heads the Kurdish intelligence and security services, said in a tweet on Friday that the Peshmerga forces “must be in highest state of readiness to defend people and land of Kurdistan and retaliate against all threats [and] attacks.”
It said Thursday night that the advancing Iraqi forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi, were armed with “tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”
The Security Council added last night that they had intelligence that the Iraqi forces who were only 3 km away from the Peshmerga positions had the intention to takeover nearby oil fields, airport and military bases.”
Kurdistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani said Friday that the “Iraqi military moves on Kirkuk will lead to a devastating conflict. Wisdom must prevail, advances must cease [and] dialogue must begin.”
The Peshmerga General Command has said that the Iraqi army and its allied mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi have been preparing to attack areas outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk since Thursday night with “foreign backing.”
It carries "dangerous indications for war and aggression against Kurdistan,” the Peshmerga Command said in a statement Friday morning.
It said that while they call for a peaceful solution to the issues between Erbil and Baghdad, they warn the international community and the US-led Global Coalition that they believe the current situation points to a “big catastrophe” if war breaks out.
It said that Peshmerga “will strongly defend the people of Kurdistan, and will not allow the Kurdistan be treated with the languages of forces and threats.”
Security officials have told Rudaw that they withdrew from some positions south of Kirkuk voluntarily to strengthen their lines of defense against any potential advances by the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command has denied that it launched an operation south of Kirkuk. It said they are still clearing the liberated areas they took from the ISIS militants as part of their Hawija operation that concluded earlier this week.
The Peshmerga command said there are dangerous indications of an imminent attack on Kurdistan.
“Last night, the Hashd al-Shaabi forces and some of the forces of the Iraqi army have started some movements and preparations to attack the Peshmerga-controlled areas, in particular around Kirkuk. These movements come after foreign encouragement and backing, and also following the threatening remarks by a number of Iraqi military and political officials against the people of Kurdistan that carry dangerous indications for war and aggression against Kurdistan,” the statement by the Peshmerga commander said.
“We inform the international community, and the Coalition that this difficult situation will lead to a big catastrophe,” it said, adding that they should convince Baghdad to choose dialogue over threats.
“We are against war and bloodshed,” the statement continued.
It said the Peshmerga forces should be on alert to respond to any military aggression against Kurdistan.
Lieutenant General Jamal Imniki, the Chief of General Staff of the Peshmerga forces, is now holding a meeting with Peshmerga commanders south of Kirkuk.
The meeting includes all Kurdish commanders for all Kirkuk fronts.
Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, said the Iraqi forces “galvanized by regional support...wanted to to launch attack last night to control part of kirkuk, oil fields [and] airport.”
Kurdish VP deploys 6k Peshmerga to Kirkuk
Kurdistan’s Vice President Kosrat Rasul has deployed at least 6,000 Kurdish Peshmerga to the oil-rich and diverse province of Kirkuk since Thursday night to face what he described as “threats” from the Iraqi forces to attack Peshmerga-controlled areas.
The new deployment is in addition to tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces who are already stationed in and around Kirkuk.
“There are threats by the Iraqi army that has deployed forces near Kirkuk supposedly to attack Kirkuk. But I don’t believe it will be easy for them to do that,” Rasul, also a veteran Peshmerga commander told Rudaw while in Kirkuk.
He is commanding various Kurdish forces in the province.
“We do not want war, and we seek to solve problems through dialogue,” the Kurdish commander said.
“We are not afraid of anyone’s threats, because the Peshmerga, as it is evident from it is name, means dying for victory.”
The latest tension has surfaced when the Kurdistan Region held a vote on independence on September 25, including in Kirkuk that is part of the disputed or Kurdistani areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad.
A prominent Shiite commander, however, told Rudaw Thursday that they were on alert to launch an attack, if asked by PM Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces.
VP Rasul said that the Iraqi forces should understand that the Iraqi army since the 1970s has always tried to bring the Kurdish territories under their control, but have failed, as they will this time.
He said they call on the international community “to interfere” in order to prevent a war between the two armies.
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, whose official position is no longer recognized by the Iraqi government since its parliament voted to remove him last month, visited some of the neighborhoods and Peshmerga positions in Kirkuk, to convey messages of reassurance to the people that the Peshmerga will be there to defend them, if attacked.
He told reporters in the early hours of Friday morning that Iraq should realize that the people of Kirkuk foiled an ISIS major attack on Kirkuk last year this month when they attacked the city from multiple positions, but were taken by surprise by the people of Kirkuk and the security forces. He predicted the same for a potential Iraqi attack.
“We do not want war, never wanted it. But every time our people were attacked, we resisted the enemy and defended our land,” Governor Karim said.
He said the latest deployment of forces, and the threats to do so, proves that the Iraqi army and its allied forces have always wanted to return back to the Kurdish-controlled areas after the defeat of ISIS.
The Kurdish Peshmerga moved to most of the areas it is now in control of in Kirkuk after the Iraqi army failed to defend the areas and withdrew from their position when the ISIS group attacked much of Iraq’s northern territories, including Kirkuk. The Kurdish forces have since defended the province, including its oil wells.
Kaka Hama, another veteran Peshmerga commander, has also deployed his forces to Kirkuk. He also said that the Iraqi forces are making movements in the area.
“There is some level of preparation [by the Iraqi forces], they have deployed some forces to certain areas, such as in Bashir,” Mohammadi Haji Mahmud or Kaka Hama old Rudaw, making reference to the Hashd-controlled Bashir located south of Kirkuk
He said that they are ready to defend Kirkuk and “every inch of Kurdistan...with our own blood.”
Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy to the war on ISIS, said in a tweet Thursday evening that the Iraqi forces were heading from Kirkuk areas to Anbar, western Iraq, to drive out the ISIS militants near the Syrian border, after the liberation of Hawija, about 55 km southwest of Kirkuk.
“Iraqi forces today shifting [En Masse] from the Hawija front to west Anbar to liberate Rawa, Qaim and secure Iraq's borders with Syria,” McGurk said.
Also on Thursday, Sirwan Barzani, the commander of the Makhmur-Gwer front, told Rudaw that the temporary base given to the US army in Makhmur to support the Iraqi-led Hawija operation has been handed over to the Kurdish Peshmerga since the operation has successfully concluded.
Chief US Defense Department spokesperson, Dana White, told reporters Thursday that they are aware of reports of the tension between the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. But she said the issue did not feature in the talks between the US State Department and Kurdish officials.
She said that as the US they call on all parties to get back to business of defeating ISIS.
“We would encourage all parties to come to a resolution, a political resolution,” White said when asked about the Kirkuk situation by Rudaw’s correspondent Namo Abdullah.