Kurds Suspend Elections, Withdraw to “Pre-ISIS” Borders

Members of Iraqi federal forces are seen in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk

Erbil, Baghdad, London– Kurdish Peshmerga forces retreated to positions they had held in northern Iraq in June 2014 in response to an Iraqi army advance into the region after a Kurdish independence referendum, a senior Iraqi commander said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional electoral commission halted on Wednesday preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to be held on November 1 due to the current crisis in Kirkuk province and lack of candidates.

In a statement released, the regional Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) said it decided to suspend the preparations for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections due to the recent violence in Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

An Iraqi military statement said government forces had taken control of Kurdish-held areas of Nineveh province, including Mosul and the hydro-electric dam.

On Monday, Iraqi forces recaptured the major oil city of Kirkuk to the south shortly after the Peshmerga abandoned it.

Reuters pointed out that Bashiqa residents celebrated in the streets the retreat of Peshmerga and their replacement by Iraqi Troops.

Backed by the US, Peshmerga forces drove ISIS out of the area and gained control over several areas outside of official and semi-independent border of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk which Kurds demand to include as part of their sovereignty.

Peshmerga had advanced into Nineveh and the Kirkuk region over the past three years as part of the war against ISIS militants, filling a void left by a temporary collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of an ISIS onslaught.

“As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014,” the Iraqi army commander, who spoke on condition of animosity, told Reuters.

DW Germany news agency reported Iraqi sources saying that clashes erupted between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces near Mahmoudiyyah town, northwest of Mosul.

Sources told the agency that an army unit arrived in the town without any prior coordination with Peshmerga which led to the clashes, but commander of west Nineveh operations Lieutenant Karim Shweili arrived in the area and contained the situation.

Meanwhile, Rudaw agency posted a video that has been widely shared on social media showing a young man jumping on a vehicle of the Iraqi police force in Kirkuk. Although the vehicle was moving, the young man was able to take the Iraqi flag down.

The young man was part of a group of people who protested Iraqi forces’ presence.

In addition, a video circulated on social media showing a member of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) standing before photos of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hung on the wall of the Kirkuk governorate’s building. The video angered Kirkuk civilians who refused such actions.

The fighter said that PMF have now taken over the shelters of Peshmerga.

“We reclaimed Kirkuk. Are you not ashamed? Where are the men? Did you not say “we are men coming from Erbil and Sulaimani to preserve Kirkuk and Kirkuk is ours”? Where are you?,” he said.

He also confirmed: “I am now in Kirkuk. We are now inside the governorate’s building.”

PMF and Iraqi forces controlled Kirkuk and nearby areas after Peshmerga forces retreated from it. Commander of Tigris operations Maj-Gen Ali Fadil Amraa told DW that security work within Kirkuk is restricted to local police.

DW also reported a security source saying the Directorate of National Security in Kirkuk had apprehended several persons who claimed they belonged to PMF, searching houses in the city, after which security forces and police toured the Kurdish areas to assures civilians.

Streets between Kirkuk and Erbil were crowded with Kurdish residents who continued to flee Kirkuk, fearing abuse or arrests. Large numbers have headed towards Sulaimania.

Kurdish member of Iraqi parliament Renas Jano believes that the incidents in Kirkuk aim at targeting the strong position of Kurdistan.

Jano told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Iran entered Kirkuk aiming to weaken Peshmerga capabilities to an extent they can’t do anything in the post-ISIS era.

He explained that real changes will happen after ISIS has been terminated, and stated that after the decision of US concerning the nuclear deal, Iran is trying to fully control Iraq. He believes Tehran wants to do so for two reasons: compensate the financial losses of wars in Syria and Yemen through Iraqi oil, and overcome human losses it suffered during the war in Syria by employing other forces in Iraq like the PMF.

Jano considered the incidents occurring in Kirkuk a genocide against its civilians.

Meanwhile, head of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Kirkuk Aso Mamand announced that he was informed by the Iraqi forces that the city council would convene on Thursday to select a new governor.

He told reporters on Wednesday that some PMF fighters have stormed Kurdish houses, but described the situation as generally “calm.”

In addition, Vice president of Kurdistan and deputy leader of PUK Kosart Rasul Ali warned in a statement that what is happening is another Anfal against Kurds, in reference to a similar campaign they suffered in Baghdad during the residency of late President Saddam Hussein.

“Some apostates abandoned the PUK’s doctrine without returning to our party’s leadership and became the invaders’ assistant to obtain some personal, temporary gains. With this disgusting act, they are slipping themselves into the black pages of the history of our nation, humiliated,” he added.

Germany Suspends Training of Peshmerga

Berlin- Germany will suspend its mission training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq because of the conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, the German defense minister said on Wednesday.

Reuters said that Germany has been a major partner for the Iraqi Kurds. It has provided 32,000 assault rifle and machine guns, as well as other weapons valued at around 90 million euros since September 2014.

About 130 German soldiers are based in Erbil where they are providing training to the Kurdish fighters, the news agency said.

The German government, which agreed on Wednesday on three-month extension of seven other foreign assignments for its armed forces, suspended the training of the Kurdish fighters as it sought to “always ensure the unity of Iraq”.

“We had agreed last Friday with the foreign office to pause the training so no wrong signal would be sent,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

The minister said the German mission of equipping and training the Kurds for their fight against ISIS was necessary and the right thing to do.

“We haven’t forgotten how it looked like in 2014 when ISIS tried to commit genocide against the Yazidis and was around 10 km from Baghdad,” she said.

The suspension of the training is temporary and resuming it will depend on daily examination of the situation in Iraq, said the government spokesman on Wednesday.

Germany had warned Iraqi Kurds against holding what it called a “one-sided” referendum and had urged Iraqi and Kurdish officials to avoid any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation.

Iran Denies any Revolutionary Guards Role in Kirkuk Operations

Iran

London – Iranian Supreme Leader’s top Adviser for International Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati denied media reports that the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) participated in the Iraqi government operations in Kirkuk against the Kurds.

“The IRGC plays no role in the Kirkuk operations,” Velayati told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday while defending the “consultative” role of the Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria.

He made his remarks in response to charges by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that the IRGC was commanding the movement of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk.

This was the second time in two days in which Velayati commented on the Kirkuk operations. On Monday, he had criticized Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, accusing him of trying to control the Kirkuk oil.

“Barzani should accept that he has made a mistake, admit it and try to make up for it,” Velayati demanded.

A Peshmerga statement said that a Revolutionary Guards leader, known as Eqbalpour, was directing the PMF in Kirkuk.

Barzani’s media adviser, Kifah Mahmoud said: “The Iranians were very clear to see. Many members of the IRGC were in the battle and most of them were speaking Persian.”

“What happened was a conspiracy with Iran’s participation through the PMF and air coverage, and of course with Turkish approval,” Mahmoud added, according to the German news agency (dpa).

Meanwhile, officials at the Parwezkhan border crossing between Iraq and Iran said troops from the pro-Baghdad PMF had taken control of the Iraqi side of the crossing, reported the Anadolu news agency.

It quoted officials, on condition of anonymity, as saying that PMF members who were stationed on the Iranian side, entered the Parwezkhan crossing and seized control of it.

On the Kurdish side, officials stressed that Kurdish border crossings with Iran were under the full control of Kurdish authorities and that the Iraqi forces were not present there.

“The claim that the PMF forces have entered the border ports between the Kurdistan Region and Iran is not true,” Samal Abdulrahman, director general of the Kurdistan Region’s customs told Rudaw television.

“No Iraqi force has come to the border port, which remains closed by Iran,” Aram Sayakhan, media and relations officer of the Parwezkhan crossing told Rudaw.

Iraqi Military: Kurdish Peshmerga Return to June 2014 Line

Iraq

A senior Iraqi military commander announced on Wednesday that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have retreated to territories they had controlled in June 2014 before ISIS swept through northern and western Iraq.

They returned to the June 2014 line after turning over their positions in the Nineveh province to Iraqi government forces, he told Reuters.

“As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014,” the Iraqi army commander, who asked not to be identified. There was no immediate comment from the Kurdish side.

Iraqi forces declared that they had achieved their objective in pushing back Kurds from territories they had seized in their three-year war against ISIS.

Their lightning operation saw them sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month.

“Security has been restored in sectors of Kirkuk, including Dibis, Al-Multaqa, and the Khabbaz and Bai Hassan North and South oil fields,” the federal government’s Joint Operations Command said.

“Forces have been redeployed and have retaken control of Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, Mosul dam, Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains,” it added.

The Kurds have now once again returned to their three-province semi-autonomous region in the north.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces announced that they had completed “imposing security” in Kirkuk during the 48-hour military operations.

The Iraqi advance dealt a body blow to the Kurdish region’s finances by depriving it of the output from the Kirkuk oil fields which had made up much of its exports.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered the recapture of Kirkuk and all other disputed areas claimed by both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central authorities in Baghdad in response to the September 25 referendum.

The Kurds voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq. The referendum was rejected by Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the US.

Abadi Says Referendum is Over, Calls for Dialogue ‘Under the Constitution’

Riyadh, Baghdad, Irbil- The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz briefed the Cabinet Tuesday on a telephone conversation he held with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during which the King stressed Riyadh’s support for Iraq’s unity, security, stability, and the adherence of all parties to the country’s constitution for the interest of Iraq and its people.

The King chaired the Cabinet session at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh on Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces continued to gradually withdraw from the disputed areas between Baghdad and Irbil, Abadi announced that the Kurdistan region’s referendum on independence is over.

“The referendum is finished and has become a thing of the past,” Abadi said in a press conference on Tuesday.

He called for a dialogue with the Kurdish leadership “under the Constitution.”

For his part, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said that after the withdrawal, the new borders between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces would be as they were before the Mosul operation launched on Oct. 17, 2016.

However, Barzani said: “The loud voices you raised for the independence of Kurdistan that you sent to all nations and world countries will not be wasted now or ever.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Fouad Massoum held the Kurdistan Region president, without naming him, responsible for what happened in Kirkuk.

In a statement, Massoum said that he had exerted immense efforts to reach a solution between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Region government, but said the “latter insisted to hold the referendum.”

The president also called on all parties to engage in urgent dialogue to prevent a worsening of the crisis in Iraq and he reminded everyone that they should resort to the constitution to solve the crisis in Kirkuk.

On Tuesday, the Peshmerga forces withdrew from the disputed area of Khanaqin, near the border with Iran.

Meanwhile, Reuters quoted oil officials in Baghdad as saying that all the fields near Kirkuk were working normally on Tuesday after coming under the central government’s control.

Reuters said Iraq’s dollar-denominated bonds jumped nearly one cent on Tuesday, more than making up for Monday’s losses.

Govt. Forces Continue Advance on Kurds in Iraq

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces continued on Tuesday their advance on Kurdish-held regions in the northern province of Kirkuk and other areas, forcing the Peshmerga to withdraw from regions it had gained during its fight against ISIS.

In a further blow to Kurdish dreams of independence, Iraqi forces took control of the two largest oil fields in Kirkuk. The fields accounted for around 250,000 barrels per day of the 650,000 bpd that the autonomous Kurdish region exported under its own auspices and their loss deals a huge blow to its already parlous finances and dreams of economic self-sufficiency.

Iraqi forces took down the red, white, green and yellow Kurdish flags that had flown over the pumping stations of the Bai Hassan and Havana oil fields and raised the national flag, an AFP photographer reported.

“With the loss of these fields, Kurdish finances have been cut in half,” French geographer and Kurdistan specialist Cyril Roussel told AFP.

The Kurds govern three mountainous northern provinces of Iraq in an autonomous region, and have also held a wide crescent of additional territory in northern Iraq, much of which they captured after helping drive out ISIS. The Peshmerga withdrew in the direction of their autonomous region in the northeast.

In the second day of a lightning government campaign to take back towns and countryside from forces of the Kurdish autonomous region, the Peshmerga pulled out of the long disputed Khanaqin area near the Iranian border.

The Baghdad government recaptured territory across the breadth of northern Iraq from Kurds on Tuesday, widening a sudden and dramatic campaign that has shifted the balance of power in the country almost overnight.

Government troops took control of the last two oil fields in the vicinity of Kirkuk, a city of 1 million people that the Peshmerga abandoned on Monday in the face of the government advance. A Yazidi group allied to Baghdad also took control of the town of Sinjar.

Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia in Sinjar, said the Peshmerga left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi forces to move in.

The government advances have redrawn the map of northern Iraq, rolling back gains by the Kurds who infuriated Baghdad last month by holding a referendum on independence.

The referendum, though not binding, reflected the Iraqi Kurds aspirations for independence for their autonomous northern region. The vote was rejected by the central government in Baghdad, as well as Turkey, Iran and the United States.

Prime Minister Haidar Abadi ordered his troops on Monday to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region itself. They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the center of the city in less than a day.

The advances create a dilemma for Washington, which is close allies of both Baghdad and the Kurds, and has armed and trained both sides as part of its successful campaign to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday. “We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq.”

So far most of the advances appear to have come unopposed, with Kurds withdrawing before government forces move in. There have been reports of just one major clash, in the early hours of
Monday on the outskirts of Kirkuk, which Washington described as a misunderstanding.

For the Kurds, the loss of territory, particularly Kirkuk which Kurdish folklore views as the heart of their homeland, is a severe blow just three weeks after they voted to declare their decades-old objective of an independent state.

The setbacks have led to sharp accusations among the two main Kurdish political parties, which each control separate units of Peshmerga fighters.

Officials in the KDP of Kurdish regional government leader Masoud Barzani accused the PUK of his longterm rival Jalal Talabani of “treason” for abandoning Kirkuk. The widow of Talabani, who served as ceremonial Iraqi president in Baghdad from 2003-2014 and died two weeks ago, denied blame.

Talabani said her party tried, but failed, to make the Iraqi government renounce the ”plan to attack” Kirkuk through contacts with US and Iraqi government representatives.

Rudaw TV, one of the main Kurdish stations, said Barzani would soon make a statement calling on the Kurdish factions to avoid “civil war”.

Oil officials in Baghdad said all the oil fields near Kirkuk were working normally on Tuesday after the last of them came under government control. Kirkuk is the base of Iraq’s Northern Oil Company, one of the two giant state oil firms that provide nearly all government revenue.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars.

Kurdish residents said they felt betrayed by the Peshmerga’s hasty retreat after they had promised to fight to the last for the city.

“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away. But now the situation has stabilized, and people are returning to their homes. Nothing will happen, God willing, and Kirkuk will return to how it was,” said Amir Aydn, 28.

Iraq Govt. Forces Launch Offensive on Kurdish-Held Kirkuk

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces launched on Monday an offensive to retake territory seized by Kurds in Kirkuk in what is seen as response to last month’s Kurdish independence referendum, which was rejected by Baghdad.

The forces have so far seized a swathe of countryside surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk in a bold military response to the September 25 referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in favor of independence.

Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the vote.

The government said its troops had seized Kirkuk airport and had taken control of Northern Iraq’s oil company from the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, known as Peshmerga.

Iraqi oil industry officials said there was no disruption to production from the facilities of the Company, which is based in Kirkuk and one of the two main oil companies that together provide nearly all of Iraq’s government revenue.

The military action was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to rein in the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who have governed themselves as an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“We call on the Peshmerga forces to serve under the federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement which was read out on television. He ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”, the statement said.

State television said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi‘ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.

The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.

The city of Kirkuk itself remained under Kurdish control, 12 hours after the start of the Iraqi operation, but two routes in and out were under control of the Iraqi forces.

“We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings,” a military commander involved in the operation told Reuters, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.

Another military commander said: “Kurdish leaders we consider our brothers have agreed to hand over control of North Oil and North Gas company facilities that belong to the state.”

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shi‘ite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

The Peshmerga and PMF exchanged artillery fire south of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official said. The official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by the PMF.

A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias announced they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

He said federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he added that the PMF have not entered the city center. Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.

Neither side provided a toll of casualties.

Major General Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press that his Kurdish forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.

“We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”

US forces which have worked closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS called on both sides to avoid escalation.

It said it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces was a “misunderstanding.”

It continued that it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”

The US-led task international force in Iraq was “closely monitoring (the situation) near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all,” a spokesman said on Twitter.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in the United States, tweeted a plea for Washington to “use (its) leadership role to prevent war”.

Major General Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” ISIS.

The action in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

Baghdad considers last month’s Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region itself but in territory in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, which the Peshmerga seized after driving out ISIS.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbors Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.

Abadi’s government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved almost unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.

Baghdad: Presence of PKK in Kirkuk is Declaration of War

Baghdad, Irbil- Baghdad accused Irbil on Sunday of bringing members from the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to Kirkuk, while it sent reinforcement from the army and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to the southern part of the disputed city, in an attempt to remove the oil-rich region from Kurdish control. 

Iraq’s National Security Council headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement Sunday that the presence of armed men is a “dangerous escalation” and a declaration of war, also warning from the presence of armed militias “not belonging to the regular security forces in Kirkuk, including some PKK fighters.”

Meanwhile, Muhammad Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander and leader of the Kurdish Socialist Party, told Asharq Al-Awsat that a meeting was held between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces on Saturday in Kirkuk in hopes of reaching a solution to the military crisis in the disputed areas.

Haj Mahmoud, however, denied being informed about the deployment of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at the borderline between the two sides.

He said: “Peshmerga forces have fortified their positions in preparation for any incident. In Kurdistan, we confirm that we will not wage war. However, we will defend ourselves in case of an attack.”

Meanwhile in Irbil, Kurdish officials denied the presence of the PKK in Kirkuk.

“There are no PKK forces in Kirkuk, but there are some volunteers who sympathize with the PKK,” General Jabar Yawer, secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, told AFP.

A meeting of Kurdish leaders attended by Iraqi President Fouad Massoum and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani was held in the town of Dukan in the Suleimaniya province on Sunday. 

The meeting ended with an agreement on five items, mainly to reject a demand from Baghdad to cancel the outcome of the independence referendum held last month as a precondition for talks on the dispute.

Following the meeting, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who is also the KDP deputy head, said “the outcome of the referendum will not be nullified.”

Kurds: Baghdad Gives Ultimatum on Kirkuk Pullback

Baghdad has set a pre-dawn Sunday deadline for Kurdish forces to abandon positions in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk they took during the fightback against ISIS more than three years ago, a senior Kurdish official said.

“The deadline set for the peshmerga to return to their pre-June 6, 2014 positions will expire during the night,” the Kurdish official told AFP.

Asked at what time, he said 2 am on Sunday (2300 GMT Saturday).

The alleged ultimatum comes as thousands of Iraqi troops and the Popular Mobilization Forces are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters near ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk.

Tensions have soared between the erstwhile allies in the war against ISIS since a Kurdish vote for independence last month.

Tens of thousands of peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000
have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has said.

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km to 10 km south
of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions, including in Taza Khurmatu, without incident.

Also Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, held urgent talks with Kurdish leaders in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the south of the autonomous Kurdish region.

In June 2014, ISIS militants swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting many Iraqi army units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.

They did so primarily in historically Kurdish-majority areas they had long sought to incorporate in their three-province autonomous region in the north against the strong opposition of Baghdad.

The Kurds currently control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province which account for a significant share of the regional government’s oil revenues.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that the US was working to reduce tensions between Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces, urging them to remain focused on the war against terrorists.

“We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy, and at the same time recognizing that we have got to find a way to move forward,” he told reporters.

“Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want to go to a shooting situation,” he added.

Baghdad Launches Kirkuk Operation amid Kurdish Reinforcement

The Iraqi army on Friday launched an operation to retake Kurdish-held positions around the northern city of Kirkuk as Kurdish authorities sent thousands more troops to the disputed oil region over what they said were “threats” from the central government.

“Iraqi armed force are advancing to retake their military positions that were taken over during the events of June 2014,” a general told AFP by telephone, asking not to be identified.

He said that federal troops had already taken one base west of Kirkuk on Friday morning after Kurdish peshmerga fighters withdrew during the night without a fight.

His comments came despite Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ruling out the use of military force against the Kurds.

Ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk is one of several regions that the Peshmerga fighters took over from the Iraqi army in 2014 when ISIS militants swept through much of northern and western Iraq.

But Baghdad is bitterly opposed to Kurdish ambitions to incorporate the oil-rich province in its autonomous region in the north and has voiced determination to take it back. The dispute on the issue has escalated since the Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum last month.

The vice president of the autonomous Kurdistan region, Kosrat Rasul, said “tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces are already stationed in and around Kirkuk.

“At least 6,000 additional Peshmerga were deployed since Thursday night to face the Iraqi forces’ threat,” he told Kurdish TV channel Rudaw.

The Kurds reiterated on Friday their call for negotiations following the referendum.

But a top aide to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani vowed that Peshmerga forces would defend their positions in case of an Iraqi military move.

“Thousands of heavily armed Peshmerga units are now completely in their positions around Kirkuk,” Hemin Hawrami said.

“Their order is to defend at any cost.”

The orders came after the Kurdish authorities accused the Iraqi government of massing forces in readiness for an offensive to seize Kurdish-held oil fields.