ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Kurdish leadership has refused to comply with a list of demands put forward mainly by the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi to hand over key areas in Kirkuk, provincial Governor Najmaldin Karim told reporters.
Peshmerga officials, including Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, head of the 70 Force, confirmed on Friday that the Hashd al-Shaabi demanded the Peshmerga leave their posts south and west of Kirkuk in order to allow for their forces and the Iraqi army to move in on Thursday night.
While the Peshmerga voluntarily withdrew from some of their outputs in Bashir and Taza in order to fortify their lines of defense, they remained in key areas such as the Kirkuk airport and K-1 military base, two positions that the Hashd want to control.
Several Kurdish officials have said that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also the commander-in-chief of all Iraqi armed forces, has set a deadline for the Kurdish leadership to meet the Iraqi demands, including handing over all areas that were under the control of Iraqi forces but abandoned when ISIS advanced in June 2014.
The deadline is Sunday at 2 am.
Saad al-Hadithi, spokesperson for the Iraqi prime minister, speaking to Sky News Arabic on Saturday night, denied they have set a deadline for the Peshmerga to hand over key areas in Kirkuk. He,however, said they have a mandate from the Iraqi parliament, backed by the regional and international communities, to impose federal authority in disputed areas, including in Kirkuk.
Video: Iraqi forces are setting a defense line within a short distance from the Kurdish forces south of Kirkuk.
“The places that they have demanded, as mentioned in those points, have so far all been rejected,” Governor Karim told reporters in Kirkuk.
The Iraqi-Kurd standoff around Kirkuk
is part of an escalation of tensions after the Iraqi government took punitive measures to isolate the Kurdistan government in reaction to Kurdistan’s 92.7 percent vote to leave Iraq in the September 25 referendum.
Rudaw had learned from a source with knowledge of the discussions taking place that the Hashd wants the Peshmerga to hand over control of all oil wells in Kirkuk, as well as the airport and K-1 military base, and for Governor Karim to be removed.
The Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji confirmed Friday that Iraqi forces want to redeploy to where they were before the rise of ISIS in 2014. That includes much of the areas the Peshmerga took from ISIS near Kirkuk and in Nineveh.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly said that they have no plans to attack Kurdish lands, but demanded that the federal authority should prevail in every part of Iraq, including in Kurdistan.
Kamal Kirkuki, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk who was also at the press conference with Governor Karim, said “sacred” territories that came under Peshmerga control following the Iraqi withdrawal are “Kurdistani.”
“The Hashd al-Shaabi have to leave. If not, they will have a dreadful fate,” he said, adding that the Hashd and Iraqi forces have to move back to the Hamrin mountain range, a natural line that the Kurds believe separates their historic lands from the rest of Iraq.
Governor Karim, commenting on the decision to remove him by the Iraqi parliament last month, and the Hashd demand he be sacked, said “Kirkuk is bigger than any individual or party.”
“With or without the referendum, there was this plan, and the best example is Khurmatu,” the governor said.
Hashd al-Shaabi and Peshmerga exchanged fire Friday night in Khurmatu, a diverse city located 75 km south of Kirkuk. In 2016, deadly clashes erupted between the same forces.
Kurdish sources have told Rudaw that three Peshmerga were injured and five Hashd were killed in the clashes Friday night.
Kirkuk is safe
The situation in Kirkuk is “safe,” Karim said, reassuring the people of the city that the Peshmerga and security forces will do their utmost to keep the peace.
He said the morale of the forces in the Kurdish-controlled areas is high and he had received volunteers in his office today, “with their weapons,” who wanted to be enlisted to fend off Iraqi threats against their province.
Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani issued a plea to Iraqi leaders and the international community on Friday to “intervene” to prevent a war between Erbil and Baghdad, a war that if ignited, will have “direct, grave consequences” on Iraq and the entire region.
The US Departments of State and Defense are both working to prevent conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Friday.
Iraqi president mediates between Erbil and Baghdad
Governor Karim said Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, is in Kurdistan with “some suggestions to calm the situation.”
Masum, himself from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), met with senior officials from his own party in Sulaimani on Friday and it was expected the meeting will continue on Saturday.
Karim said Masum will jointly meet with PUK leaders and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KPD) on Monday to discuss the current situation.
Last updated at 8:51 p.m.