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Iraq: Kurds build border defenses and plan for US military help - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Kurdish peshmerga troops walk during an intensive security deployment after clashes with militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria (ISIS), in Jalawla, Diyala province, July 4, 2014. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Kurdish peshmerga troops walk during an intensive security deployment after clashes with militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria (ISIS), in Jalawla, Diyala province, July 4, 2014. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is fortifying the area under its control and establishing a coordination center for US military advisors in an effort to bolster the autonomous region’s defenses, Asharq Al-Awsat has learned.

The autonomous region’s militia forces, known as Peshmerga, are digging a trench line along the edge of the territory under Kurdish control where it meets territory controlled by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their allies.

In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday, Halgurd Hikmet, spokesman for the KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, said: “The current strategy of the Ministry and the Peshmerga forces is to defend the province of Kurdistan and all [disputed] areas which have been restored to it. In order to back up and strengthen this strategy and policy, we have started digging a trench along the line that separates us from the areas of militants.”

Since the fall of Mosul one month ago and the collapse of Baghdad’s authority across much of western and northern Iraq, Kurdish forces have occupied some positions vacated by the Iraqi army as well as disputed territory, including the city of Kirkuk, which has been at the center of a long-running territorial dispute between Baghdad and Erbil.

Peshmerga forces also claim to have repelled several attempts by ISIS to seize more territory in the north.

“Practically, work has started on digging the ditch. A ministerial order on this issue has been passed to all fronts to begin digging. This covers all the areas we have reached in Mosul and Kirkuk,” Hikmet said.

He added: “But Diyala province is not covered now by the trench [plan] because there is some Kurdistan territory whose situation has not been decided yet, such as the two towns of Sadiyah and Jalula. We are waiting for a decision on them so that we can consequently decide to dig the ditch there.”

A senior Kurdish military officer confirmed that the project was going ahead. Maj. Gen. Abdul Rehman Qawrini, a peshmerga forces field commander in charge of the line linking Sinjar and the Rabia border crossing with Syria, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Our forces have started digging the trench which separates the areas under our control from the areas where there are armed organizations.”

Some Sunni insurgents located in the area south of Kurdish territories said they welcomed the move, and said it was directed exclusively at ISIS and government forces, rather than the various groups that have risen up against the government.

Fa’ez Shawoosh, the spokesman for the Coordination Board of Tribal Revolutionaries, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Digging the ditch has nothing whatsoever to do with the revolutionaries. We do not fight against the Peshmerga forces. The Kurds, like us too, are suffering from [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki’s overbearing policy . . . We wish the Kurdish brothers success in all fields.”

The move also follows growing speculation that Iraq’s Kurdish leaders will use the current crisis as an opportunity to either declare independence from Baghdad, or extract concessions on greater autonomy or more territory for their region.

The president of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, called for a referendum on Kurdish independence earlier this month.

Hikmet, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, also revealed plans to set up a joint operations center with advisors from the US military in Erbil.

“All preparations have been completed and studied. They will not be kept secret and will be announced in due course,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat when asked to comment on reports that a joint Peshmerga–US military operations center had already been opened.

Last month, US President Barack Obama revealed plans to send around 300 US military advisors to Iraq in order to help the Iraqi army beat back ISIS. Kurdish forces in particular have built close links with the US military and conducted joint operations with American Special Forces teams in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Hikmet denied that the aim of the center was to oversee a military operation involving US and Peshmerga forces against the Sunni militants in Mosul, and said that details of the extent of US assistance to Erbil and Baghdad’s forces had yet to be decided at the political level.

“In fact, it is too early to talk about a military operation to regain control of Mosul. This issue has to do with the US itself and the stance of the Americans on it, and an agreement with the KRG, and the [Iraqi] Federal Government,” he said.

The Kurdish official added: “The US policy is clear. The US comes to the province in coordination with the Peshmerga forces. Coordination does not mean [US forces] will fight on the front lines. The center will consist of a group of US military advisers who come to help the Peshmerga forces in the light of the new military situation in Iraq. It [the center] will, at the same time, give the province of Kurdistan some kind of reassurance.”