Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil said Kurdish fighters have no plans to leave Kirkuk and other disputed areas in Iraq.
“The Peshmerga forces are free to stay and roam across Kurdish areas that are outside the [Iraqi Kurdistan] region. Our forces will never withdraw from these areas,” the Ministry of Pehmerga said in a statement following a call for Kurdish forces to issued by a senior Iraqi official.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk and other disputed areas of Iraq beyond the borders of the semi-autonomous region in June as part of efforts to drive off advancing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters. ISIS had earlier taken control of Iraq’s second city of Mosul, with Iraqi army units disbanding and retreating—many to Iraqi Kurdistan—in the face of the Islamist onslaught.
In a press conference held in Kurdish-held Kirkuk, Iraqi Transport Minister Hadi Al-Amri called on the Kurdish forces to pull out of the oil-rich province and other disputed areas.
Amri, who is also the leader of the Iran-backed Badr Militia, said that Baghdad does not need the assistance of the Kurdish forces to repel ISIS.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces had earlier repelled ISIS’s northward advance in August, driving out Islamist fighters who had sought to take a hold in Kirkuk. Western powers are strongly backing the Kurdish forces against ISIS, providing the Peshmerga with military and strategic support.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Saadi Ahmad Bira expressed surprise at the Iraqi minister’s statement, particularly as Amri had previously sought safe haven in Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
“He [Amri] knows all too well how capable the Peshmerga forces are in defending themselves and their people,” Bira said.
He added: “The residents of Iraqi Kurdistan will stay in Kirkuk and those who are not, whether Amri or the ones who came to the province as part of a policy to Arabize [the region], can leave to where they came from.”
“I ask Amri to turn his attention to Tikrit which Iraqi forces continue to fail to liberate from ISIS control,” he said.
The Kurdish official called on the Iraqi Transport Minister to issue a formal apology to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. “That he [Amri] is even still alive is due to the Pehmerga forces,” he added.
PUK MP Farsat Sufi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Peshmerga presence in these [disputed] areas is necessary for the protection of the land and its people,” confirming that Kurdish fighters “will never pull out.”
“Amri’s remarks contradict the new [Iraqi] government and the national unity efforts . . .We consider his statements to be a declaration of war,” the Kurdish MP said.